How to Check for Mouth Cancer at Home
Why Oral Cancer Has a High Death Rate
Oral cancer is something that most people, including doctors and dentists, don't think about on a regular basis. The death rate for oral cancer is higher than for any other type of cancer, including malignant melanoma, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and cervical and thyroid cancers.
"Oral cancer is hard to detect because it is typically a small painless white or red spot in the mouth so this is easily ignored. Many people do not have regular dental care so this is not detected early. In fact, statistically, there is a poor prognosis for oral cancer and this has not changed over the years," says Dr. Sandra J. Eleczko, DDS.
The high death rate isn't because oral cancer is hard to catch or necessarily difficult to remove, but because it's often caught too late. Over-scheduled doctors are so preoccupied with getting to all their patients in a timely manner, they forget or neglect to perform routine oral cancer examinations. Our trust in doctors also contributes to the problem, with most believing that if the doctor says we are healthy, we are. Yet this is sometimes not the case. To combat cancer and other ailments, we must take our health into our own hands.
This article is in no way a substitute for regular dental check-ups and dental cleanings. However, it will teach you to keep a vigilant eye for anything abnormal in your mouth. Talk with your hygienist about oral cancer the next time you go in, and be sure they do an oral cancer screening every six months.
In the meantime, I will teach you how to check for oral cancer at home. It takes roughly two to three minutes, but will probably take longer the first few times you do it.
What Are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer?
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, go to your dentist immediately.
- Mouth sores that don't heal within two weeks or start to bleed
- White, red, black, or discolored patches
- Swelling, lumps, bumps, or odd growths that are not found on both sides of the mouth
- Excessive or spontaneous bleeding or puss coming out of a lesion or open sore
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Difficulty or pain when moving the jaw or tongue
- A constant feeling that something is stuck in your throat
- Continuous pain in the ear
- A persistent headache
When to See a Doctor
Make an appointment with a dentist or oral surgeon if you have any persistent signs and symptoms that bother you and last more than two weeks. It's important to get any spots checked out as well.
What Can I Expect to Find During My Home Examination?
Before I show you how to do a cancer check at home, I want to explain some things you may find in your mouth during your examination that are normal. Oral health is a complex subject, and I can't touch on everything, but here's what you can expect to find:
- Linea Alba
- Parotid Papillae
- Fordyce Granules
- Swollen Lymph Nodes
- Aphthous Ulcer
- Circumvallate Papillae
Read on to learn about what each thing looks like and why it's normal.
This appears as thin white lines inside your cheeks. This is a normal, hyper-keratinized area where you bite your cheeks, or where your cheeks rest between your teeth. The thin line will follow the biting plane or the area where your teeth meet.
Also known as Stensen's duct, parotid papillae can be found inside your cheeks, toward the front of your mouth. It is a bump of extra tissue on the inside of each corner of your mouth. (You may sometimes bite them by accident.) These bumps are an outlet for your saliva glands and are normal, unless they are particularly hard.
These are tiny white or yellowish-white spots on the inside of your cheeks or lips. They are nothing more than ectopic sebaceous glands, which are completely normal.
Swollen Lymph Nodes
Swollen lymph nodes are often associated with illness or inflammation. If the swelling doesn't go away within a week or two, see a doctor. Places where lymph nodes are located include: the front and back of your neck; in front and behind your ears; in the cheek area; and on top of your shoulders. When swollen, they will often be sensitive or sore and may be visible.
This is an extra bone growth commonly found under the tongue along the bony ridge, or on the hard palate. These growths may bulge out and are often rounded, sometimes involving a few bony lumps in one mass. The ones under the tongue are often found on each side of the face, while the ones on the hard palate are often singular.
Also known as a canker sore, this is a small to medium, round ulcer. It usually has a white interior and a bright red border. They are very sensitive and can affect your oral hygiene and eating. They should go away within a week or two. Taking zinc will help speed up this process and will also help prevent future canker sores. If the ulcer does not go away within two weeks, you should contact your dentist.
These are large, protruding bumps on the back of the tongue arranged in a V shape. They are the largest of the four types of taste buds, and most people have about 10 to 14 of them.
How to Check for Oral Cancer at Home
1. Check Your Lips
Use bi-digital palpation (pictured below), a tactile method of oral examination in which you use your thumb and forefinger to rule out abnormalities, to feel for any hard lumps or areas of soreness. Pinch your lip by placing your pointer finger on the inside of your mouth, and your thumb on the outside. Apply moderate pressure, pressing the lip tissue between your finger and thumb.
2. Check Your Cheeks
Use bi-digital palpation to feel your cheeks. Feel for any hard lumps or areas of soreness.
3. Check the Floor of Your Mouth
Use bimanual palpation (pictured below) to feel the floor of your mouth, which is the area under your tongue. Place the pointer finger of one hand under your tongue, while pressing up with the thumb of the other hand on the outside of the jaw. Directly oppose the finger in your mouth. Feel for any hard lumps or areas of soreness. Press firmly.
4. Check Your Tongue
Use bi-digital palpation to feel your tongue. Stick your tongue out and palpate the body of the tongue, feeling for lumps or areas of soreness.
5. Examine the Surface of Your Tongue for Blemishes
Stick your tongue out, grab the tip, and look at each side for any anomalies. The sides of the tongue are the most common places to find oral cancer. Don't confuse varicosities, also known as veins, for something abnormal.
You may also see circumvallate papillae, which are large bumps at the back of the tongue. These are normal. If you notice they are enlarged, don't panic. This can be due to a number of reasons that aren't due to cancer. This includes a viral infection, an allergic reaction, a high-grade fever, a tissue injury, or a nutritional deficiency. However, circumvallate papillae may turn into a cancerous form if it grows enough to get involved with lymph nodes of that region, so it's important to talk to your doctor or dentist if you notice a change.
6. Say, "Ahh"
Stick your tongue out, say "Ahh," and look at your oropharyngeal area, also known as your tonsils, for any inflammation or sores. It is normal for some people's tonsils to have indented pockets in them. Look for features that seem inflamed or out of place, as this is not normal.
7. Check the Roof of Your Mouth
Tilt your head back and look at the roof of your mouth. Look for sores and inflammation. Rule out any burns you may have acquired from eating food that is too hot.
8. Check Your Gums
Pull out your lips and look very closely at your gums. Are there sores on your gums or patches of discolored tissue? Do your gums bleed when you lightly touch them or when they are not provoked at all?
If you notice anything that is concerning, take a picture (if you can) and compare it in a week or two.
How to Self Check for Oral Cancer
What Are the Risk Factors of Mouth Cancer?
Known risk factors include tobacco and alcohol consumption, which, together, are responsible for about 75 percent of this type of cancer.
"There is a relationship between smoking and alcohol that has been well established. However, now there is also a correlation between HPV and throat or tonsillar cancer in younger people," says Dr. Eleczko.
Other factors include:
- Chewing betel nut
- Drinking alcohol
- The HPV-16 virus
- Chronic mouth irritation
- Poor oral hygiene
How Can I Prevent Oral Cancer?
- Stop using tobacco or don't start.
- Drink alcohol in moderation or don't drink at all.
- See your dentist regularly.
- Eat a well-balanced diet.
- Limit your exposure to the sun. Repeated exposure increases the risk of cancer on the lip, especially the lower lip.
This involves surgical removal of the tumor and a little bit of healthy tissue around it. If the tumor is small, this surgery will likely be minor, but for a bigger tumor, this could involve the removal of some of the tongue or parts of the jaw.
Oral cancer is especially sensitive to radiation therapy and may be the only necessary treatment for those with early-stage cancer. However, it may also be used in combination with surgery and/or chemotherapy if the cancer is more advanced.
If the cancer is more widespread, chemotherapy may be used.
Oral Cancer Facts and Statistics
- Oral cancer is a common cancer of global concern.
- Early detection has the potential to significantly reduce death and morbidity.
- There is an alarming increase in oropharyngeal cancer cases seen in the 18 to 40 age group.
- Oral cancer is usually completely painless in its early stages.
- 8,000 people in the US will die of oral cancer this year.
- 40,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or pharyngeal cancer this year.
- Of the 40,000 people diagnosed, only 57% will still be alive in five years.
- Approximately $3.2 billion is spent on oral cancer in the US per year.
- Worldwide, 640,000 people will be diagnosed this year.
- Late stage discovery is not the exception, it is the norm.
- Discovery of oral cancer at a late stage usually means it has already spread to the larynx and other secondary locations.
- When discovered at a late stage, the chance of a recurrence is multiplied 20-fold for the next ten years.
- Around 90% of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, originating in the tissues that line the mouth and lips.
Source: Oral Cancer Foundation
Will you start checking yourself for oral cancer?
Do you know anyone who has had oral cancer?
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Which type of doctor should I consult if I have concerns about mouth cancer?
Start with the easiest: ask your dental hygienist to take a look. S/he will either find it as a normal finding, or ramp it up to the next level and show it to the doctor (dentist.) If the doctor suspects something, they will refer you, often, to an oral pathologist. They may do a brush biopsy under some circumstances, etc. But in my experience, most patients who came to me with concerns just have a normal finding, or even an abnormal finding that isn't harmful. I have caught oral cancer, too. Your dental hygienist should be doing an oral cancer screening on you at every visit free of charge.Helpful 36
What could a rough spot on my soft palate be?
A rough spot on your soft palate could be caused by some chronic habit where friction is causing a callous. It could also be caused by mechanical food abrasion or other trauma. If it changes size, begins to exude blood or pus, or becomes painful, go to your dentist right away. Otherwise, ask your dental hygienist to take a look at your next oral healthcare visit.Helpful 23
Recently, my whole mouth started feeling very dry. The insides of my mouth were almost stuck to my teeth if I didn’t talk, eat or drink anything for a half hour or so. Then the inside if my mouth started hurting. This morning I woke up and noticed the bottom of my tongue, on each side, had several white, almost wormy looking things protruding down in a row. I can’t find anything describing this anywhere. What could this be?
I'm wondering if you've switched toothpaste or mouthwash brands recently? The "white, almost wormy looking things" sound a bit like rolled-up skin that's sloughed off. This is a common allergic reaction to SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate) found in many toothpaste brands. This type of tissue sloughing (if that's what it is) commonly takes place beneath the tongue. An SLS reaction would also explain the painful, dry mouth before noticing the sloughed skin. I don't have an image to go by, but this is my best guess with the information given. If that's the case, discontinue use of any SLS-containing oral health products.Helpful 22
Should I be concerned about bumps on both sides of my tongue, as related to this article and mouth cancer?
They're likely large and toward the posterior (back) of the tongue. If they're a v-shape on top of the tongue: Circumvallate papillae are simply a type of taste bud on the tongue. Large bumps on the sides of the tongue could be lingual tonsils if they've become swollen. Again, without a more in-depth analysis of its size (mm), color, contour, consistency, and texture, there are many possibilities.Helpful 21
I have small black patches on both of the sides of my tongue. Could it possibly be cancer?
With the minuscule amount of descriptive terms here, it's hard to say. Often varicosities (veins) beneath the tongue can appear very dark or sometimes even almost black. Generally these would appear bilaterally, on both sides of the tongue. Generally oral cancer symptoms appear on one side of the mouth, not both. This fact alone leads me to believe it's probably something within normal findings. However, if you're concerned, ask your dental hygienist at your next appointment. If these areas begin to hurt, exude fluids, ulcerate, form blisters, or change shape/size/color, go see your dental care professionals right away.Helpful 2
© 2013 Kate P