Oral Cancer Screening - What to Expect

Header Image

An oral cancer screening is a visual and physical exam of the oral cavity and connected tissues. It can reassure a patient that there are no apparent problems, or trigger early treatment if there are. A doctor or dentist might suggest screening in response to one's lifestyle choices, or the patient may request it simply as a precautionary measure.

According to the National Cancer Institute, cancer screenings should take place before symptoms begin to show.

1. Visual Exam

The face, neck, lips, inside of the nose and oral cavity are all major parts of a screening for oral cancer. Before the screening, the patient must take out all removable dental appliances to expose every area.

Whether the patient is sitting upright or lying down, explains the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF), a doctor or dentist looks for asymmetries, swellings, bumps, patches of color, ulcerations or other abnormalities. To look inside the nose and mouth, the doctor or dentist uses a light and mirror to see clearly, and a tongue depressor to hold down the tongue and look at the back of the mouth – much like your average physical. The patient may be asked to say "Ahh" to expose areas in the throat that are otherwise difficult to see. Other tools can help the doctor evaluate the gums, inner cheeks, roof of the mouth, tonsils, throat and underneath the tongue.

2. Physical Exam

After or during the visual exam, the doctor or dentist also touches the head and cheeks, around the jaw, under the chin and in the oral cavity to feel for unusual nodules or masses. Another sign of a potential problem is immobility in normally mobile tissue, and the patient may be asked whether physical contact there causes any discomfort. Oral cancer symptoms can be painful, but a painless swelling can still be a sign of problems elsewhere. The patient might also be asked to swallow while the throat is examined, according to the OCF.

Oral Cancer Screening Devices

In addition to a light, mirror, tongue depressor and other standard medical equipment, a doctor or dentist may use specialized examining tools to complete an oral cancer screening. The Mouth Cancer Foundation highlights the Oral CDx, which is a brush that painlessly removes cells for testing; a VELscope, which identifies suspicious oral tissues using a visible blue light; and an Orascoptic DK, which releases a moderately acidic mouth rinse to help with the visual inspection of these tissues. Other screening instruments also use specialized dyes to assist the doctor.

A similar examining tool a doctor or dentist may use is a nasopharyngolaryngoscope, which, despite the complexity of its name, is simply a flexible fiber optic camera. After applying medication and an anesthetic, the doctor or dentist feeds this instrument into the nose and down the back of the throat to look at the larynx and pharynx.

After Your Oral Cancer Screening

An oral cancer screening is precautionary, not diagnostic. If a doctor or dentist finds nothing abnormal during the exam, the patient may be asked to return at regular intervals for further screening – especially if he or she uses tobacco, drinks alcohol or practices other behavior that increases the risk of oral cancer.

Sometimes a doctor or dentist refers a patient for further tests to get to the bottom of a certain symptom. Keep in mind, results that require further investigation are not necessarily a cancer diagnosis. Even if cancer is ultimately found, the American Dental Association (ADA) points out that early diagnosis reduces treatment related health problems down the road. To this end, those undergoing treatment for oral cancer should use an extra-soft toothbrush, such as Colgate® Slim Soft.

A screening for oral cancer is not just a medical exam; it's an opportunity for a person to talk to the doctor or dentist about fears and concerns, and to ask for advice about reducing his risk. If you're nervous about a screening, write a list of questions before you go. Just a short examination can put your mind at ease.

Learn more about the signs of oral cancer in the Colgate Oral Care resources.