Oral Cancer Screening

Oral cancer occurs most often in the front of the mouth but can also affect the back of the throat. Frequently, pre-cancerous and cancerous lesions can be detected by visual examination (VOE) and opportunistic screening in routine dental visits.


During an oral cancer screening, your dentist feels around the tissues in your mouth, neck and jaw area. If they feel something hard, they will perform additional tests for a closer look and send samples to the lab for further evaluation.

What Happens During an Oral Cancer Screening?

Many people fear that a dental screening will involve a long, painful, or uncomfortable exam. However, it is generally a quick, painless process.

A dentist will use familiar tools (tongue depressor, mirror, light) to inspect the inside of your mouth, including the lips, cheeks, gum lining, throat, and tongue for any discolored patches or masses. He or she will also feel the neck and head for any lumps, which is important because some cancers start in the lymph nodes of the neck and throat.

The dentist may also shine a special light in your mouth, which makes healthy tissues appear dark and abnormal tissue appear white. This can help spot mouth sores, which are often difficult to see unless they are bleeding or swollen. Additionally, the dentist will gently lift up and look at your neck for any swelling or lumps that could be a sign of cancer in the throat or nasopharynx.

A screening can’t identify all pre-cancers and cancers. If a suspicious sore is spotted, the dentist will need to take a biopsy of the tissue to determine whether it is cancerous or not. This is why it is important to schedule regular screenings. This allows the dentist to detect cancer or pre-cancerous cells in their earliest stages, when they are the most treatable. A regular oral cancer screening is also the best way to keep track of your overall mouth health and make lifestyle changes that can decrease your risk for these serious diseases.

Your Dentist Examines Your Mouth

If your dentist finds a spot that looks suspicious, they will do further testing to determine if it is cancer or not. They will use a light or dye to help them see the area better, and they will take a sample of the tissue for further evaluation in a lab.

They will look inside your mouth, especially the sides of the tongue (the most common site for oral cancer). They will also examine the floor of your mouth, including the cheek lining and gums. They will pull your lip back and inspect the inside of it for any unusual color or texture changes. They will also check the lymph nodes in your neck, which are another common site for cancer to spread from.

If they notice any signs of these diseases, they will make note of it in your chart. They will also recommend a follow-up with your doctor, which could include a biopsy or cytologic smear.

While a diagnosis of oral cancer is scary, it is treatable when caught early. Regular oral cancer screenings performed during your regular six-month visits are one of the best ways to catch it when it is in its earliest stages and easiest to treat. Without screenings, many cases of oral cancer aren’t diagnosed until they are in the late stages and more difficult to treat.

Your Dentist Looks for Abnormal Tissues

During an oral cancer screening, your dentist looks for red or white patches of tissue in your mouth, throat and neck. They will also look for sores that haven’t healed in a long time or any other unusual bumps or changes in texture. Depending on your age and risk factors, your dentist may recommend more detailed tests if they notice anything suspicious.

These additional tests can include a biopsy, where your doctor removes a small piece of tissue from the suspected area and sends it for testing to see if it is cancerous or pre-cancerous. They might also order an imaging test, such as an MRI or CT scan, to get a better look at the tissue. They might even use an endoscope with a camera to examine the inside of your throat and mouth.

Some of these tests can be uncomfortable or painful, but they are a necessary part of your regular dental checkups. The goal of these tests is to find the abnormal tissues while they are still in their early stages, which drastically reduces treatment-related health issues and improves survival rates.

Your Dentist Orders Additional Testing

Occasionally, during an oral cancer screening, your dentist will find something that they want to look into further. They may do this by themselves or they might refer you to a specialist for further testing.

This additional testing is usually done to see if the abnormal area is actually a cancerous or pre-cancerous tumor. A biopsy is the most accurate way to do this, so your dentist may remove a small piece of tissue from the spot and send it to the lab for analysis.

If it turns out that the spot is not a cancerous or pre-cancerous cancer, your dentist will probably just keep an eye on it and ask you to come back in for another exam in a few weeks. If it does turn out to be a cancerous or pre-cancerous spot, then your dentist will most likely recommend a specific course of treatment for you.

Regular oral cancer screenings are vital because they help your doctor catch mouth cancer and pre-cancerous conditions in their early stages. This gives you the best chance of a successful treatment. Less than one-third of mouth cancers are discovered in their later stages, which is when they are most difficult to treat. By catching these cases in their early stages, your dentist can greatly increase your chances of survival.