How to Check for Mouth Cancer at Home

Updated on September 26, 2018
Faceless39 profile image

I'm a dental hygienist, pyrography artist, avid gardener, writer, vegetarian, world traveler, and many other things!

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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.

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
  • Exostoses
  • Aphthous Ulcer
  • Circumvallate Papillae

Read on to learn about what each thing looks like and why it's normal.

Linea Alba

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.

Linea alba is normal and is nothing to worry about.
Linea alba is normal and is nothing to worry about. | Source

Parotid Papillae

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.

Fordyce Granules

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.

Fordyce granules are a normal finding.
Fordyce granules are a normal finding. | Source

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.

Exostoses

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.

Aphthous Ulcer

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.

An aphthous ulcer (canker sore) is a normal finding.
An aphthous ulcer (canker sore) is a normal finding. | Source

Circumvallate Papillae

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.

Circumvallate papillae (taste buds) - normal finding
Circumvallate papillae (taste buds) - normal finding | Source

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.

Illustration depicting bi-digital palpation.
Illustration depicting bi-digital palpation.

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.

Illustration of bimanual palpation.
Illustration of bimanual palpation.

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?

Tip

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:

  • Smoking
  • Chewing betel nut
  • Drinking alcohol
  • HIV/AIDS
  • The HPV-16 virus
  • Aging
  • 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.

Treatment Options

Surgery

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.

Radiation Therapy

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.

Chemotherapy

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?

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Do you know anyone who has had oral cancer?

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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.

  • I have one small spot on the right side lower corner, feels like a little round ball. It doesn't hurt, but could it be mouth cancer and should I be alarmed?

    That could just be a plugged minor salivary gland, a mucocele, or salivary duct stone. It could be a lot of things. Without a more in-depth analysis of its size (mm), color, contour, consistency, and texture, there are many possibilities.

  • 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.

© 2013 Kate P

Comments

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    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      2 weeks ago from The North Woods, USA

      @Teri, Sorry I can't be of more help, but I'm not sure. There are thousands of things it could be, but if they've taken a biopsy then you should have your answers soon. I'd be curious to know what you find out.

    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      2 weeks ago from The North Woods, USA

      @Veeranag, Without a more in-depth analysis of its size (mm), color, contour, consistency, and texture, there are many possibilities. I suggest you go to a Dentist. Just based on the little information you've given (yellow patches), it sounds a little like fordyce granules (ectopic sebaceous glands), which are often a yellow color. Again, there's too little information to go on here. Go see a dentist as soon as possible.

    • profile image

      Veeranag 

      2 weeks ago

      Hi all,

      I am suffering lite yellow patches on inside cheek since last two months...I don't have any pain.i went to ENT specialist he took blood tests....And too he found my AEC count is range between 40-440 but I have 474....He said allegry....But still I have doubt again i went to another MS ENT he said I 100% assure it's not a cancer......He gave me capsuls but still no recovery ....Again I went MD general physican he has 40 years experience...He also gave capsules for 20 days.....Can you please guide me any what is this causes.is that oral cancer?

    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      3 weeks ago from The North Woods, USA

      It could be a number of things. It's hard to say what it could be without a more descriptive explanation of the contour, consistency, shape, and size. Meanwhile maintain an anti-inflammatory diet (no meat, dairy sugar, or gluten.)

    • profile image

      Teri 

      3 weeks ago

      I recently had a biopsy on a white bump towards the back of my tongue by the big taste buds if not on one of the big taste buds. It is white looks like a big pimple or cyst. After removal it became bigger and painful I am waiting on results of biopsy. What could that be.?

    • profile image

      Audray J Keller 

      5 months ago

      I have always bitten the inside of my cheek. Usually end up peeling some skin off but heels within a day or 2. I while back I noticed a sore and it's not painfully feels like I cld pull the skin off top of it but it hasn't heeled itself. I have been very stressed the last yr and I do smoke. Is this something to worry about? Not painful. And no on in my family has had be4

    • profile image

      Bernadette Hollywood 

      7 months ago

      Thank you good information.

    • profile image

      Mia 

      9 months ago

      Very informative. I've had oral cancer screening & was told I was OK. However, I have a persistant painful hard pimple inside the underlying rt. gum area. It gets infected with an abcess often & I've taken strong anti-biotics. Was diagnosed as Oral Neuroma? I also have a similar one in the lower rt. palette. that was diagnosed as an ulcer? Reading your info is educational & causes deep concern. Will be checking this out further.

    • profile image

      lou 

      13 months ago

      hi i have a small what looks like scratch on my my front gum. i have'nt scratched it and it doesnt hurt...it just appeared...had it a few months...what could it be?

    • profile image

      SBLproductionsYY 

      13 months ago

      hello, im 26 been chewing off an on for about 8yrs i recently quit smoking i smoked for 10yrs, ive noticed weird bumps on the side of my tongue near my wisdom teeth, with lots of pain, swollen tonsil an hurts to move my tongue, could this be a early sign?

    • profile image

      Jeanie 

      13 months ago

      Can oral cancer appear as matching ulcers on both sides of the back of the throat, just before the tonsils?

    • profile image

      Junnie 

      21 months ago

      Thank you. Because of your article I will be going to my dentist to check for oral cancer. Didn't even know about that. Am always feeling like something is in my throat and always think it will go away.

      Thanks

    • profile image

      nitin 

      2 years ago

      pain on one side face tabacoo use s form 12years

    • profile image

      Sergio 

      2 years ago

      Useful information, thank you!

    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      3 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Thanks for the comments, I appreciate them! Elsie, I'm glad you caught it early and happy you went in. Peachpurple, thanks.. the intention is to promote awareness, I guess it worked! :)

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 

      3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      wonderful tips especially the photos, freaked me out

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 

      3 years ago from New Zealand

      Excellent article.

      I have just had a large lump removed from my top lip, (now only half of a top lip), I have had this lump about thirty years, but in the last year it started growing (very quickly) it was ACC cancer, which was very rare growing in the lip 9only twelve cases recorded in the world.

      We should always get lumps checked out.

      You are right about the doctor watching the clock instead of looking after the patient, my doctor say's if we have more than one health problem, make another appointment, which of course I never did, that is why this lump slipped by for so many years, (it was picked up because I had skin cancer on my nose), now my only hope is that cancer hasn't spread to other parts of my body through the nerve centre, living each day hoping all is well.

    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      3 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Indeed, all modern hygiensts take multiple in-depth courses in oral pathology, histology, and so forth. However, there is a gap between learning it and putting it into practice. Many offices charge a fee for a cancer screening. My philosophy is that it's my ethical duty to conduct one at each and every appointment--and this includes a full head and neck exam as well. Whether the dentist charges a patient or not is not my concern, and has no bearing on the service that I render to my patients in this regard. Thanks for reading! :)

    • Whatsittoyou profile image

      Whatsittoyou 

      3 years ago from Canada

      Are all hygienists trained to screen for oral cancer before they graduate or do they need to go for special training for it? If not, they should really make this a part of the training that they originally take.

    • ReviewsfromSandy profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      3 years ago from Wisconsin

      Some disturbing photos. But very good information on how to check for cancer.

    • erorantes profile image

      Ana Maria Orantes 

      3 years ago from Miami Florida

      Hello miss faceless39. I like your article.Visit to the Doctor is important as well the self examination. Your article provides with awareness of a terrible disease. It is sad and scary . The tongue is essential for our existence. I looked it up everyday when I clean my teeth. After looking at the picture in your hub . I am going to be extra careful. I like your hub. Thanks.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      3 years ago from California

      This is a great hub. My dentist does an examine similar to what you suggest every time I go in for a cleaning. Nice work.

    • profile image

      noorudin 

      3 years ago

      Extra bone growth (single = torus; plural = tori) is commonly found under the tongue along the bony ridge, or on the hard palate.

      i have also this condition

    • cyoung35 profile image

      Chad Young 

      4 years ago from Corona, CA

      Great hub. If this helps one person you've done a great service to make people aware of oral cancer. Maybe some day we'll have a cure for cancer, but until then we need to be proactive.

    • Sonja Larsen profile image

      Sonja Larsen 

      4 years ago from Orange County, California

      This was a very-well written and helpful article. Crazy pics too! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      4 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Very helpful and informative article on oral cancer and what to look for.

    • thebiologyofleah profile image

      Leah Kennedy-Jangraw 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts

      Very informative, easy to follow article. Great use of links, pictures, and stats. Thanks for sharing this information and how-to.

      Voted up and sharing.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      This is a very well-done and very complete explanation of how to check for oral cancer. I'm surprised that doctors don't perform this check in a normal annual physical. It's great that you have made the effort to spread the awareness of oral cancer.

    • Faceless39 profile imageAUTHOR

      Kate P 

      4 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      Thank you all for the positive feedback. My goal is to spread awareness of this disease, and it looks like so far it's working. I appreciate your comments!

    • profile image

      Aida Garcia 

      4 years ago

      Excellent article, well-written and very precise! Follow me!

    • iguidenetwork profile image

      iguidenetwork 

      4 years ago from Austin, TX

      Very well written and detailed article, quite a handy guide for detecting any possible signs of oral cancer. Up and useful.

    • The Reminder profile image

      The Reminder 

      4 years ago from Canada

      Nice ways to quickly check out if there are any signs of the cancer. Voted up.

    • leakeem profile image

      leakeem 

      4 years ago from Earth

      It's the first time I heard of Oral Cancer. Nice to know that there's a quick way to check it. Voted up!

    • Minnetonka Twin profile image

      Linda Rogers 

      4 years ago from Minnesota

      Very well written and thorough article on checking for oral cancer. The photo's really help make this easy to read and understand. Hit many buttons and voted up.

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