Oral Cancer Screening

Health care professionals recommend that people examine their mouth, tongue, gums and throat regularly for signs of cancer. These are often asymptomatic.


Oral cancer screening involves using a brush-like tool to scrape cells from the mouth and sending them for testing in a lab. In the past, this was the only way to detect early-stage oral cancer.

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that can increase your chances of developing oral cancer. These include: age, smoking and drinking alcohol. The more of these factors you have, the greater your chance of developing cancer. The risk of developing cancer also increases if you have a family history of cancer.

Some people develop cancer because of certain habits or because they have a gene that makes them more likely to get it. Others get cancer because of a combination of many factors.

It’s important to know your risk factors so that you can protect yourself from them. You can learn about your risk factors by talking to a dentist or health care professional. Then, you can take steps to avoid or reduce your risks.

If you have any of the risk factors for oral cancer, it’s important to talk to your doctor about getting an exam. The exams can look for early signs of cancer, and they may include a physical exam, blood tests or X-rays.

Oral cancers can be found and treated at any stage, but treatment is easier and more successful when the cancer is caught early. This is why it’s important to schedule regular exams with your dentist or hygienist.

Many cancers can be prevented with regular checkups and by making healthy lifestyle choices. You can also protect yourself from oral cancer by not smoking or using any other type of tobacco product, eating a balanced diet, limiting your intake of alcohol and visiting your doctor regularly for screenings and health checks.

The outlook for cancer varies by the type and stage of the cancer. It also depends on your general health, your tolerance and response to treatment and whether you have other medical conditions.

The most common cause of death from oral cavity cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), which accounts for about 75 percent of all cases. Other types of oral cancer are adenoma, precancerous lesion and sarcoma.

Oral Cancer Symptoms

While most people know about the need to get regular screenings for cancers of the breasts, lungs and colon, not everyone understands how important it is to screen for oral and throat cancer as well. And because cancers of the head and neck can spread so quickly, early detection is essential for treatment.

Oral cancer is the uncontrolled growth of malignant cells in the mouth or throat, also called the pharynx. It is a common type of cancer that can affect the lips, cheeks, tongue, floor (bottom) of the mouth, the back of the throat (the oropharynx), salivary glands and the hard palate. It can also spread to other parts of the body, such as the neck and jaw.

The signs and symptoms of oral cancer can vary and may be easy to miss. They might resemble other conditions such as sores, cysts, or peptic ulcers. Sometimes, they may be mistaken for a cold or a headache.

Symptoms of oral cancer might include pain in the mouth or jaw, red or white patches that bleed easily, swelling of the gums, throat, or neck, difficulty swallowing, or a lump or mass in the neck or throat. Many times, a biopsy is needed to confirm the diagnosis of oral cancer.

It’s important to talk to your doctor or dentist about any symptoms that last more than two weeks. Then, he or she can decide if further tests are needed.

If a biopsy is done, it’s important to have the results quickly so that any tumor can be treated before it spreads. Some types of oral cancer, especially those that start in the squamous cells of the lip and tongue, can spread rapidly to other parts of the head and neck. The lymph nodes in the neck often become involved, too.

For this reason, if any new and persistent symptoms occur, it’s best to see a specialist for an immediate evaluation. This includes a thorough history and physical examination, including digital palpation of the neck node regions and bimanual palpation and inspection of the head, neck, mouth, and pharyngeal areas. A good light source and mouth mirrors are helpful for observing these areas. A forceful protraction of the tongue is often required to visualize the posterior lateral and palatine surfaces of the tongue.