What are the tests for oral cancer?

Very often cancerous lesions in the oral cavity can be undetected by the patient. Changes in the tissue are difficult to see when they are in the back of the throat, cheek or tongue. An oral exam for changes in the surrounding tissues should be performed by a dentist during your schedule maintenance appointments. A sample of irregular tissue cells must be obtain as a biopsy to confirm if the cells are normal or cancerous. Microscopic tests are completed to determine if the cells are truly cancerous.   
Checking for signs of oral cancer is part of a regular dental checkup as your dentist can easily examine your oral tissues by looking at your lips and inside your mouth. He or she will also carefully check your gums, the inside of your cheeks and your tongue (the sides and underneath). Also, the dentist will look at the roof and floor of your mouth and inspect your face, neck, lips and mouth to look for any signs of cancer.

Your dentist will not be able to diagnose cancer during an examination. Oral cancer can be diagnosed only with a biopsy, when a sample of tissue in the area is removed and examined under a microscope. However, your dentist can identify suspicious-looking areas or growths that may need further evaluation.
Your dentist will conduct routine tests for oral cancer during a dental exam. The dentist will check for unusual patches or mouth ulcers, particularly ulcers that are red or white. If there is an unusual red or white patch or sore, the dentist will refer you for further testing, or order a biopsy that tests for cancerous cells. Some oral cancer screening tests include having a dye applied to the inside of your mouth tissue or rinsing with a blue dye before the dentist checks your mouth, and are usually done for those at high risk for oral cancer.
Your doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
  • X-rays: An x-ray of your entire mouth can show whether cancer has spread to the jaw. Images of your chest and lungs can show whether cancer has spread to these areas.
  • CT scan: An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your body. You may receive an injection of dye. Tumors in your mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or elsewhere in the body can show up on the CT scan.
  • MRI: A powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of your body. An MRI can show whether oral cancer has spread.
  • Endoscopy: The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) to check your throat, windpipe, and lungs. The doctor inserts the endoscope through your nose or mouth. Local anesthesia is used to ease your discomfort and prevent you from gagging. Some people also may be given a mild sedative. Sometimes the doctor uses general anesthesia to put a person to sleep. This exam may be done in a doctor's office, an outpatient clinic, or a hospital.
  • PET scan: You receive an injection of a small amount of radioactive sugar. The radioactive sugar gives off signals that the PET scanner picks up. The PET scanner makes a picture of the places in your body where the sugar is being taken up. Cancer cells show up brighter in the picture because they take up sugar faster than normal cells do. A PET scan shows whether oral cancer may have spread.
This answer is based on source information from the National Cancer Institute.

Continue Learning about Oral Cancer

Oral Cancer

Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can grow anywhere in the oral cavity, which includes our lips, tongue, gums and even the floor and roof of our mouths. There are several types of oral cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. I...

f detected early, oral cancer can be cured by surgically removing cancerous growths or tumors or using radiation therapy. Dentists are your first line of defense in early detection, since they are likely the first to spot a precancerous or cancerous lesion. Men are more likely to develop oral cancer, making it the sixth most common cancer among men. Smoking and drinking alcohol in excess can increase your risk. Learn more about preventing and treating oral cancer with expert advice from Sharecare.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.