Oral cancer screening consists of visual and manual examination

Oral cancer accounts for 1% of all cancers worldwide. While more prevalent in smokers, oral cancer can develop in non-smokers regardless of your age. Like most other cancers, the key to successful treatment of oral cancer is early diagnosis. Dentists spend a lot of time looking in your mouth which provides them an excellent opportunity to screen for oral cancer. Oral cancer screening can detect early symptoms of cancer while still in a treatable state.

How do you perform oral cancer screening?

Oral cancer screening should be part of every new patient examination. A comprehensive oral cancer screening consists of both a visual and manual exam:

Visual oral cancer screening

During your visual oral cancer screening your dentist will look for any suspicious looking lesions. First, they examine your head and neck region. Next, they evaluate the inside of your mouth, including your cheeks, tongue, palate, and gums. Cancerous and pre-cancerous lesions typically appear as a red or white spot inside your mouth. These lesions typically have undefined, raised borders, and they occasionally demonstrate ulceration. If your dentist identifies a suspicious lesion, then they will take further action.

Manual oral cancer exam

Manual oral cancer screening involves palpation of your head and neck region. Oral cancer travels through the head and neck lymph nodes, therefore it’s important to examine this area closely. Suspicious nodes typically manifest themselves as a firm and non-tender nodule. During your exam, your dentist will palpate your occipital, postauricular, preauricular, anterior cervical, posterior cervical, supraclavicular, submandibular and submental lymph nodes (basically your entire head and neck region!)

What happens if your dentist detects a suspicious lesion?

If your dentist finds a suspicious looking lesion or node, they will make a note of it and inform you of their findings. Based on the appearance of lesion and your risk levels, your dentist may recommend either a follow-up or biopsy.


If your lesion doesn’t appear that suspicious and you’re a low-risk patient, then a two to three week followup will be scheduled. Should the same lesion or nodule still persist at this time, then a biopsy is warranted.


There are a few different ways to perform a biopsy. One option is to perform a brush biopsy. Brush biopsy is painless and simple and requires no anesthesia, cutting or drilling. Another option is excisional biopsy. This is where your dentist cuts the lesion and then send it for a biopsy.


Your dentist may refer you out to an appropriate specialist for further evaluation.