An oral cancer exam is performed by a dentist or doctor to screen for signs of cancer or precancerous conditions in the mouth. The goal of the exam is to identify mouth cancer while it is in its early stages because, at that point, treatment is more effective and there is a better chance of recovery.
Most dentists perform the exam as part of a routine dental appointment. Some doctors may use additional tests to aid in identifying areas containing abnormal cells in the mouth.
There currently is not a consensus among medical organizations on whether or not healthy people without risk factors for mouth cancers need an oral cancer screening. However, as the goal of the exam is to detect mouth cancer or precancerous lesions that may develop into mouth cancer, you may want to decide with your dentist on whether the test is right for you based on your risk factors. People with a greater risk for oral cancer may benefit more from an oral cancer exam, though studies haven’t clearly proven that. Factors that can increase the risk for oral cancer include:
During an oral cancer screening, your dentist will check the inside of your mouth for red or white patches or mouth sores. He or she will also feel the tissues in your mouth, using gloved hands, to check for lumps or other abnormalities. If you wear removable dentures, whether complete or partial, you will need to remove them so that the tissues underneath can be examined.
Besides examining the mouth through viewing and feeling, special tests may be performed to screen for oral cancer. These include a test in which a special rinse is used. This rinse contains a specific blue dye that is absorbed by abnormal cells and cause them to appear blue in the mouth.
If anything appears out of the ordinary, your dentist may recommend a follow-up visit to see if the abnormal area is still present and/or a biopsy procedure to test a sample of cells in the area of concern. You may be referred to a specialist to receive an oral cancer diagnosis and treatment.