It was a small little area in the mouth, but Emily Valence’s training as a dental hygienist told her something wasn’t right.

A second-year dental hygiene student who will graduate in May, Valence’s thoroughness and attention to detail while examining her future father-in-law, Mike Eddings, caught a symptom of oral cancer before it could become an even more serious situation.

She made the discovery last fall after inviting Eddings to visit the university’s Dental Hygiene Clinic.

“I brought Mike in for a routine cleaning,” she said. “During the first part of the cleaning we do an intra- and extra-oral examination to look for abnormalities in the mouth and lymph nodes.

“While I was doing this, I checked under his tongue, where I found a whitish area. My instructor looked over it and recommended he get it checked out.”

Within the next few days, Eddings – who lives in Ozark, Mo. – saw his regular dentist and then a specialist who determined it was a pre-malignant cancerous lesion.

“I hadn’t noticed anything or felt anything unusual,” he said. “I’ve never smoked or chewed, so to learn there was a cancerous situation was a surprise. Had Emily not scheduled me for a cleaning, I don’t know when it would have been noticed.”

Kim Rogers, associate professor of dental hygiene, said early detection of oral cancer makes a big difference in terms of mortality.

“Catching something early before it metastasizes to other structures is critical,” Rogers said. “Oral cancer isn’t always painful and sometimes patients don’t know it’s there until it advances and starts affecting them.”

Valence said she’s grateful for the training she’s received in Missouri Southern’s dental hygiene program.

“Dental hygienists are the first line of detectors when it comes to visits to the dentist,” she said. “It’s really important for us to visualize and notice things so we can bring them to the dentist’s attention.”

Eddings said he feels lucky that his future daughter-in-law made the discovery early on.

“I play trumpet,” he said. “I started taking lessons again after this just to fine-tune (my skills). I can tell it’s a little different, but I can still play. Had the cancer went unnoticed, it may have been too late.”