How to Check for Mouth Cancer at Home

Updated on December 13, 2017
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Kate Parker is a dental hygienist and a wood burning artist, among many other things.


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.

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 rarely 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 on your own time. Screening for oral cancer takes roughly two to three minutes.

How to Check for Oral Cancer at Home

1. Check your lips.

Use bidigital palpation (pictured below) 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 bidigital palpation.
Illustration depicting bidigital palpation. | Source

2. Check your cheeks.

Use bidigital 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. | Source

4. Check your tongue.

Use bidigital 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.

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 the 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?

How to Self Check for Oral Cancer (Video Tutorial)


If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, go to your dentist immediately.

  • Mouth sores that don't heal within two weeks.
  • 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.
  • Persistent headache.

What's Normal?

Below are the things you may find in your mouth during your examination, but which are not abnormal. Oral health is a complex subject, and I can't touch on everything, but I will give you a good idea of the details in your mouth you shouldn't worry about.

  • 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.
Linea alba. | Source
  • Parotid papillae: Also known as Stensen's duct, parotid papille 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.
Fordyce granules. | 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 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 to 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.

Aphthous ulcer.
Aphthous ulcer. | 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.
Circumvallate papillae. | Source

Oral Cancer Facts and Statistics

  • Oral cancer is a common cancer of global concern.
  • Early detection has the potential to significantly reduce oral cancer death and morbidity.
  • Known risk factors include tobacco and alcohol consumption, which, together, are responsible for about 75 percent of oral cancers.
  • There is an alarming increase in oropharyngeal cancer cases seen in the 18 to 40 age group.
  • More than 25 percent of oral cancers occur in people without risk factors of tobacco or excessive alcohol consumption.
  • 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 with oral cancer this year.
  • Late stage discovery of oral cancer 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 10 years.
  • Anyone can get oral cancer, though factors such as smoking, chewing tobacco, chewing betel nut, drinking alcohol, HIV/AIDS, HPV-16 virus, and aging increase the likelihood.

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

    © 2013 Faceless39


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      • profile image

        Bernadette Hollywood 8 weeks ago

        Thank you good information.

      • profile image

        Mia 3 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 7 months ago

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

      • profile image

        SBLproductionsYY 7 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 7 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 15 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.


      • profile image

        nitin 19 months ago

        pain on one side face tabacoo use s form 12years

      • profile image

        Sergio 2 years ago

        Useful information, thank you!

      • Faceless39 profile image

        Faceless39 2 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 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

        wonderful tips especially the photos, freaked me out

      • Elsie Hagley profile image

        Elsie Hagley 2 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 image

        Faceless39 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 image

        Faceless39 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.