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Oral Cancer: A Series Continued

By Jill Feilmeier on April 12, 2012 in Dental Health

Dentist talking to patient

Last Tuesday, we gave you some general information on Oral Cancer and statistics on the prevalence of mortality due to late diagnosis. You may have had some questions about the diagnosis process. How can dentists identify and screen or cancer? What is a biopsy? In today's oral cancer series, we will focus on oral cancer diagnostics.

Oral cancer is a term used to encompass all forms of cancer that occur in the oral cavity. This includes the lips, tongue, cheeks and palate along with other structures in the mouth. While some forms of oral cancer can be present without symptoms, a dentist will be able to perform a variety of tests and observations to screen your mouth for oral cancer.

A physical exam includes looking carefully at the roof of your mouth, back of your throat, and insides of your cheeks and lips. Your dentist will also gently pull out your tongue so it can be checked on the sides and underneath. The floor of your mouth and lymph nodes in your neck will also be checked1. Some of what they are looking for is very subtle. Is there asymmetry, or does part of your external mouth not move well, or possibly droop? A good practitioner is sensitive to these small give-aways. 2

Your provider will have you stick out your tongue so it can be checked for swelling or abnormal color or texture. With both hands, he or she will feel the external area under your jaw and the sides of your neck, checking for lumps (enlarged lymph nodes) that may suggest inflammation or more. 1

A good oral cancer exam is visual AND tactile. It takes eyes trained in what and where to look for things, and gloved fingers to feel particular areas as well 2. If a dentist believes you have signs of oral
cancer, such as lesions in your mouth, the only way to truly tell if it is cancerous or not is a biopsy. 1

With a biopsy, your dentists will take a small sampling of the abnormal tissue and review it under a microscope. From this sample, they can tell if the tissue contains cancer cells. 1

Oral cancer can have a profound effect on you and your family so it is imperative that you visit your dentist regularly and ask for an oral cancer screening one a year! Keep yourself and your health safe!

1) “National Cancer Institute.” What You Need To Know About Oral Cancer –. Web. 26 Mar. 2012. <>.

2) “How to Know If You Have Had a Good Oral Cancer Examination.” The Oral Cancer Foundation. Web. 26 Mar. 2012. <>.