Performing Oral Cancer Screenings at Home

Did you know that your dentist and hygienist check for signs of common oral diseases every time you come in for your visit? What exactly are we looking for, and how can you check for this at home? While it’s important to come in every 6 months for a routine cleaning and exam to ensure a happy and healthy mouth, performing at-home screenings can help catch the early signs and symptoms of oral diseases. According to The Oral Cancer Foundation, close to 54,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal cancer this year and lead to over 9,750 deaths. The date rate associated with this cancer is particularly high not because it is hard to discover or diagnose, but due to the cancer being routinely discovered late in its development. The Oral Cancer Foundation also gives us tips to thoroughly examine the head and neck to check for the progression of the disease. 

The early signs and symptoms of oral cancer may go unrecognized because it can frequently prosper without producing pain or obvious signs in the mouth. It may start out as a white or red patch of tissue in the mouth or have the resemblance of a common canker sore. If the sore persists after 14 days, it is crucial to let your dental provider know so a proper evaluation can be performed. Other symptoms include; a painless lump located in the neck, pain in the ears, difficulty with speaking, chewing, or swallowing, hoarseness that lasts for a long period of time, or numbness in the face. 

When looking in the mirror, be sure to check for any abnormalities on the base of the tongue or the floor of the mouth because these are common places for oral cancers to develop. It is also necessary to check your lymph nodes. You can achieve this with your fingertips using a circular motion or rolling strokes to check the corner of your jaw all the way forward to your chin. Next, run your fingertips from under the jaw down to your collarbone, turning your head from side to side to feel the area occupied by the deeper nodes in the muscles. Healthy lymph nodes are soft and move easily when pressed. It is the hard, painless, and enlarged nodes that are red flags for oral cancer and need to be checked by your dental professional. Once you have checked your neck, it is time to look inside the mouth, starting with the lips and working towards the gums, inside of your cheeks, tongue, floor of the mouth and back of the throat including the tonsils. Are you ready to perform your oral cancer screening? 

Solar radiation is the common cause of lip cancers and it is more likely to occur in individuals who spend a lot of their time outdoors. The lips should have a defined border and be uniform in color and texture. Most sores on the lips are easily detected, but some can be found within the lip or inner surface that must be palpated in order to detect. Place one finger inside the mouth and another finger outside the mouth, compressing the lips and nearby tissue to search for any signs of a thickened area or lump. Moving on to the gums, the appearance should be a pale pink closest to your teeth. You are going to lift the upper and lower lip so proper visualization can be achieved. You are searching for any discoloration, growth, ulceration, tissue of a different surface texture or any sore which bleeds easily to the touch. When examining your cheeks, compress the tissue from the corners of your mouth all the way to where your jaw ends. You are also looking for any discoloration, ulceration, or growth above the level of the rest of the tissue. The tongue is a high-risk area for oral cancer so look extra closely in this area examining the top of the tongue, both sides, and underneath. There are hundreds of small bumps on the tongue called papillae and they should remain consistent in color and texture. Stick out your tongue and allow it to move evenly and freely from side to side. Like the other areas, we are looking for uniformity in color and texture. All of the abnormalities mentioned above apply to the tongue as well. We are feeling for any small, hard areas about the size of a pea. It is important to note that cancers may start in the tongue and live there for a while before taking the appearance of a visible sore.  

Persistency is key! At home screenings for oral cancer should be performed at least once a month to determine when a variation of normal needs to be examined by a dental professional. If something does not resolve within 14 days, be sure to let your dental provider know. Most things your dentist and hygienist find will not be cancer, however, when it comes to something as dangerous as oral cancer, earlier discoveries can make all the difference and can ultimately save your life.