The goal with oral cancer screening is to identify cancer early, when there is a greater chance for treatment. Most dentists recommend an oral exam during your routine dental visit to screen for oral cancer. During an oral exam, your dentist looks over the inside of your mouth to check for red or white patches or mouth sores. Using gloved hands, your dentist also feels the tissues in your mouth to check for lumps or other abnormalities.
Many people have abnormal sores in their mouths, with the great majority being noncancerous. An oral exam can't determine which sores are cancerous and which are not. If your dentist finds an unusual sore, you may go through further testing to determine its cause. The only way to definitively determine whether you have oral cancer is to remove some abnormal cells and test them for cancer in a procedure called a biopsy.
The dentist will discuss increased risks associated with oral cancer including: tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff, among others, heavy alcohol use and a previous oral cancer diagnosis. Your dentist may suggest that you undergo further special oral screening tests in addition to the oral exam to screen for oral cancer.