Oral cancer will be diagnosed in over 3,200 Canadians this year and will prove fatal in over 1,100. That's usually because it is caught late, when the cancer has spread and survival rates are around 20 per cent.

Now scientists in B.C. are testing a new tool they hope will shine a light on this little-recognized disease.

Researchers at the B.C. Cancer Agency have developed with LED Medical Diagnostics Inc. a tool called the VELscope, a hand-held device that usees fluorescence technology to allow dentists and hygienists to scan for abnormal tissue that may be cancerous.

B.C. is the first region in Canada to test the VELscope. They are part of a test project that they hope will lead to making the scope a standard screening device in every dentist's office.

Balvir Dhadda's life may have been saved by the VELscope. She had been suffering from what she thought were stubborn cold sores in her mouth. Her dentist used the experimental tool and discovered the cold sores were actually cancer.

"I was devastated," Dhadda told CTV News. "I'd never heard of oral cancer myself."

In Dhatta's case, the VELscope found her cancer early, at the stage when treatment has an over 80 per cent survival rate. "Basically, they saved my life," she said.

Oral cancer is more common that most think. It's diagnosed more often than ovarian cancer, liver cancer or cervical cancer, but most aren't aware of it. But it can be disfiguring, disabling, and often fatal.

It's estimated that 65 per cent of oral cancers go undiagnosed. That's because the tissue changes that lead to oral cancer actually start below the skin's surface, at the basal membrane. These changes may not be visible to the naked eye until the disease progresses to the surface.

"The problem is that some of these early changes in the mouth are subtle, they're ill-defined, and it's difficult for the clinician to decide if this is something of concern that needs to be followed up or rather if it's just an infection," explains Dr. Miriam Rosin of the B.C Cancer Agency.

Cancerous oral tissue may not look abnormal under ordinary light, but under the blue light of the VELscope, cancerous tissues appear as dark brown or dark green patches. If the VELscope detects a suspicious lesion, a biopsy of the tissue can be taken for a full diagnosis. 

"We want to catch the changes decades, ir at least five years, before they become cancers," says Rosin.

Vancouver dentist Dr. Meredith Moores has already discovered the benefits of using the VELscope.

"Since we started using the oral cancer screening tool, there have been lesions I have noticed that I had not picked up with an oral examination," she says.

Doctors have long thought that those most at risk of oral cancer were smokers and heavy drinkers. But about 25 per cent of newly diagnosed cases do not fit the high-risk profile. And there's been a 60 per cent increase in the last 30 years in young people under 40 being diagnosed with oral cancer.

Doctors speculate that environmental toxins or viruses like human papillomavirus or HPV, which causes cervical cancer, may be boosting the rates of oral cancer too. That's why they hope the scope makes it easier for dentists to search for early cancers.

"That is definitely our hope: that this will save lives," says Dr. Moores.

With a report from CTV's Avis Favaro and medical producer Elizabeth St. Philip