Oral Cancer

The inside of the mouth is lined with mucosa, a type of skin that is usually smooth, delicate, and coral pink in color. Any alteration in the appearance of the mucosa could be a warning sign of an oral health issue, including oral cancer.

What is Oral Pathology?

Oral pathology focuses on identifying and managing diseases affecting the oral cavity, lips, and gums. Oral pathology includes the study of the causes, progression, and effects of oral cancer and other mouth conditions. One of the most common forms of oral pathology is routine screening for oral cancer. Your general or family dentist routinely performs oral cancer screening to catch any early signs of oral cancer. If the screening indicates possible oral cancer, you are referred to an oral surgeon for further evaluation and treatment.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer can be any one of several types of cancer that affect the mouth and portions of the throat. You can get oral cancer on the tissues of the mouth, the gums, on or under the tongue, or in the back of the mouth. According to the National Institutes of Health, over 53,000 people are diagnosed with oral cancer annually in the United States.

Oral cancer usually occurs in people over 40, with men twice as likely to get it. The primary causes of oral cancer are excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, or infection by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Signs You Might Have Oral Cancer

There are symptoms of oral cancer you and your dentist should watch for to minimize the chance of advanced cancer. The earlier oral cancer is caught, the sooner it can be treated. If you have any of the following symptoms, you should see your dentist or an oral surgeon for a thorough examination and possible biopsy.

  • Red or whitish patches inside the mouth or along the lips
  • An oral sore that bleeds easily and does not heal
  • A lump on the skin lining the interior of the mouth
  • Thickening of the skin inside the mouth
  • A chronic sore throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Feeling like you need to clear your throat repeatedly
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How to Perform an Oral Cancer Self-Exam

Although your dentist may perform oral cancer screening as part of a yearly exam, monthly oral cancer self-exams are valuable for spotting problems early between dental appointments. Keep in mind that a self-exam does NOT replace regular oral cancer screenings by a dental professional.

  • Examine your face for changes such as lumps, rashes, moles, or swelling using a mirror.
  • Trace your jawline and the sides of your neck, checking for asymmetry and swelling.
  • Look for discoloration or lumps inside the upper and lower lip, feeling with your fingers where you cannot see the tissue.
  • Do the same for the inside of your cheeks, looking for red or white patches, lesions, or tender spots.
  • Check the tongue, including the underside.
  • Use a mirror to check the roof of the mouth, looking for mouth ulcers or discoloration.

The Importance of Oral Cancer Screenings

Oral cancer screenings help to identify oral cancer early. Early detection and treatment are crucial to reduce fatalities and complications due to oral cancers. Regular screenings are your best chance of effective treatment and survival.

What to Expect During an Oral Cancer Screening

During an oral cancer screening, your one of our oral surgeons will look inside your mouth for red or white patches or sores that are not healing. They will carefully feel inside your mouth to find lumps, bumps, or other changes to the mucosa. They also examine the back of the throat and your neck.

What is an Oral Biopsy?

If your dentist or oral surgeon sees signs of oral cancer, they may request an oral biopsy. The biopsy is a minor surgical procedure. A small sample of tissue from the suspected cancerous area is removed and sent to a laboratory for microscopic examination to determine whether the tissue is cancerous. There are several types of oral biopsy available, including the following:


Cytology diagnoses lesions due to herpes, fungal infections, and post-radiation changes. It is performed by your dentist or oral surgeon, who scrapes cells off the lesions and sends them to a laboratory for analysis. Cytology is not always accurate without additional testing.

Aspiration Biopsy

In this type of Oral Biopsy, we carefully extract sample cells using a needle and syringe. If there is no fluid in the lesion, an incisional biopsy may be needed.

Incisional Biopsy

An incisional biopsy is performed on a solid lesion to remove a portion of an oral lesion. For larger lesions, more than one sample is needed from various areas.

Excisional Biopsy

If the oral lesion is very small (less than 1cm), an excisional biopsy removes the entire lesion.

Punch Biopsy

This is a way to perform either an incisional or excisional biopsy. Punch biopsies are usually utilized for ulcerative lesions.

Brush Biopsy

For a brush biopsy, your oral surgeon applies firm pressure with a circular brush and rotates the brush to pick up cellular material without making an incision.

How Can I Protect Myself Against Oral Cancer?

The most important way to prevent oral cancer is to give up smoking and tobacco use. Smokers have a much higher risk of several oral cancers than non-smokers. Excessive alcohol use is also linked to higher rates of cancer. Avoid sun exposure or use a lip balm with an SPF 30 to protect your lips.

If you have questions about oral cancer or have been referred by your dentist, you are in good hands. The surgeons at Evergreen Oral Surgery are always available to help. Contact our office at Tacoma Office Phone Number 253-473-0651 to schedule an oral biopsy if your dentist has discovered an abnormality during a routine oral cancer screening. If you prefer, you can use our online appointment form, and we will return your call.

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