If you have symptoms that suggest oral cancer, your doctor or dentist will check your mouth and throat for red or white patches, lumps, swelling, or other problems. A physical exam includes looking carefully at the roof of your mouth, back of your throat, and insides of your cheeks and lips. Your doctor or dentist also will gently pull out your tongue so it can be checked on the sides and underneath. The floor of your mouth and lymph nodes in your neck will also be checked.
If your doctor or dentist does not find the cause of your symptoms, you may be referred to a specialist. An ear, nose, and throat specialist can see the back of your nose, tongue, and throat by using a small, long-handled mirror or a lighted tube. Sometimes pictures need to be made with a CT scan or MRI to find a hidden tumor. (The Staging section describes imaging tests.)
The removal of a small piece of tissue to look for cancer cells is called a biopsy. Usually, a biopsy is done with local anesthesia. Sometimes, it's done under general anesthesia. A pathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only sure way to know if the abnormal area is cancer.
If you need a biopsy, you may want to ask the doctor or dentist some of the following questions:
- Why do I need a biopsy?
- How much tissue do you expect to remove?
- How long will it take? Will I be awake? Will it hurt?
- How soon will I know the results?
- Are there any risks? What are the chances of infection or bleeding after the biopsy?
- How should I care for the biopsy site afterward? How long will it take to heal?
- Will I be able to eat and drink normally after the biopsy?
- If I do have cancer, who will talk with me about treatment? When?