Steps for Conducting an Oral Cancer Self-Examination

Oral Cancer Examination

Oral cancer, a significant public health concern in Australia, refers to cancerous tissue growth located in the oral cavity. According to Cancer Australia, approximately 5,300 Australians are diagnosed with head and neck cancers each year, which include cancers of the mouth. The possibility of successful treatment increases markedly with early detection, which is why understanding and performing regular oral self-examinations is critical.

While self-examinations are invaluable for early spotting of unusual signs and symptoms, they are not substitutes for professional screenings conducted by healthcare professionals. This guide is designed to empower individuals with the knowledge to conduct these exams at home, reinforcing the essential layer of self-care in cancer detection and prevention.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer encompasses a range of cancers that form in the tissues of the mouth or throat. It most commonly appears as a growth or sore in the mouth that does not go away. Oral cancer can occur on the lips, tongue, gums, cheeks, and the floor and roof of the mouth. Most oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which means they originate in the squamous cells lining the mouth and throat.

Risk factors for oral cancer include smoking, heavy alcohol use, excessive sun exposure to the lips, and the human papillomavirus (HPV). Certain genetic predispositions and dietary factors can also influence the risk. The Department of Health in Australia actively promotes awareness of these risk factors, encouraging citizens to adopt healthier lifestyles to mitigate their cancer risk.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Early detection starts with recognising the signs and symptoms of oral cancer. Symptoms may vary but often include:

  • Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks.
  • Unexplained loss of feeling, pain or numbness, anywhere in the oral cavity or lips.
  • Difficult or painful swallowing, speaking, or chewing.
  • Swelling in the jaw or neck that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.
  • White or red patches on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth.
    Sudden weight loss, a lesser-known but equally significant symptom of oral cancer.

Should any of these symptoms persist, it is crucial to consult a healthcare professional. Early intervention is key to effective treatment and potentially saving lives.

Benefits of Self-Examination

The primary benefit of conducting regular self-examinations for oral cancer is the potential for early detection. When cancer is identified early, treatment can be less invasive and more likely to be successful, leading to better health outcomes. Regular self-checks make individuals more familiar with their oral health, enabling them to notice any changes more swiftly.

While self-examinations should never replace professional evaluations, they can be an effective preliminary screening tool. Engaging in monthly checks can help catch symptoms that might otherwise go unnoticed, providing crucial lead time for professional assessment and intervention.

Preparation for Self-Examination

Before beginning a self-examination for oral cancer, a few preparations are necessary to ensure effectiveness and safety:

  • Choose the Right Tools and Setting: You will need a bright light and a mirror. A handheld mirror can be particularly useful for seeing all areas inside the mouth. Ensure the area you choose is well-lit, such as a bathroom with good lighting.
  • Pick an Appropriate Time: Conduct your examination at a time when you are relaxed and will not be rushed. Many find that performing the examination after brushing their teeth in the morning or evening works well, making it easier to integrate into their daily routine.
  • Cleanliness: Make sure your hands are clean before you start your examination to avoid introducing germs into your mouth.

These initial steps ensure that your self-examination process is thorough and effective, setting a strong foundation for this proactive health measure.

Step-by-Step Guide to Self-Examination

Conducting a self-examination for oral cancer involves a series of steps designed to systematically check all parts of the mouth and related areas. Each step is crucial and requires careful attention:

  • Face and Neck Check: Begin by examining your face and neck in the mirror under good lighting. Look for any asymmetry, swelling, or skin changes. Gently palpate along the jawline and neck to feel for any lumps or tender areas.
  • Lip Inspection: Pull down the lower lip and check for sores or colour changes. Repeat this with the upper lip. Both inner and outer surfaces should be smooth and uniform in colour.
  • Cheek Analysis: Using your fingers, pull out each cheek to view the inside surfaces. Look for red, white, or dark patches. Also, gently feel the tissue for any lumps or changes in texture.
  • Gum Inspection: Lift the lips to examine the gums. Healthy gums should be firm and pink. Look for signs of swelling, discolouration, or unusual sores.
  • Tongue Examination: Stick out your tongue and move it from side to side. Examine the surface for any abnormalities or changes in colour. Don’t forget to check the underside of your tongue by lifting the tip toward the roof of your mouth.
  • Floor and Roof of the Mouth: Tilt your head back to inspect the roof of your mouth, and then touch the tip of your tongue to the back of your front teeth to check the floor of your mouth. Both areas should be free of growths, patches, or unusual sores.
  • Throat Check: Say “Ahh” and use a mirror to look at the back of your throat. Watch for any swelling, patches, or anomalies that might indicate a problem.

This comprehensive approach helps ensure that you do not miss any signs that could indicate the early stages of oral cancer.

What to Do if You Find Something Unusual

If during your examination you discover any unusual signs such as persistent sores, lumps, or patches, it’s important to follow up with a professional. Differentiating between harmless mouth ulcers, which are common and usually heal within two weeks, and potentially malignant lesions, is key. Persistent symptoms that do not resolve themselves in this timeframe should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.

Limitations of Self-Examinations

While self-examinations are an excellent tool for early detection, they do have limitations. Certain areas of the mouth are difficult to view thoroughly, and untrained individuals may not recognise subtle changes that could be indicative of oral cancer. Additionally, some symptoms may be mistaken for less serious conditions, potentially delaying crucial medical consultation.

This is why self-examinations should complement, but not replace, regular check-ups and screenings by dental professionals. In Australia, guidelines suggest that adults should have a dental check-up at least once every two years, though more frequent visits may be necessary based on individual risk factors.

Preventive Measures and Lifestyle Tips

Prevention plays a crucial role in reducing the risk of developing oral cancer. Australians can adopt several lifestyle changes to help minimise their risk:

  • Avoid Tobacco and Limit Alcohol: Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption are among the top risk factors for oral cancer. Quitting smoking and moderating alcohol intake can significantly reduce risk.
  • Sun Protection: Use lip balm with SPF and limit sun exposure to prevent lip cancers.
  • Diet and Nutrition: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of oral and other cancers.
  • HPV Vaccination: The HPV vaccine is recommended to prevent viruses that are linked to several cancers, including oral cancers. Vaccination guidelines in Australia suggest vaccination for all adolescents.

These preventative strategies are endorsed by health organisations across Australia and are critical in the fight against oral cancer.

Regular self-examinations for oral cancer are a proactive way to maintain your oral health and can lead to the early detection of oral cancer, which is crucial for successful treatment. By incorporating these examinations into your routine, staying aware of the symptoms and risk factors, and adhering to preventive healthcare guidelines, you are taking significant steps towards safeguarding your health.

If you have concerns about oral cancer or notice any persistent changes during your self-exams, consider visiting a dental professional for a comprehensive evaluation. In the Hawkesbury area, Hawkesbury Dentistry offers expert oral health services and can provide professional guidance and screenings for oral cancer. Remember, early detection and professional advice are your best tools in maintaining oral health and preventing serious outcomes.


1. What are the most common symptoms of oral cancer?
Common symptoms include persistent sores in the mouth that don’t heal within two weeks, unexplained bleeding, numbness or pain anywhere in the oral cavity, white or red patches on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth, and difficulties in chewing, swallowing, or speaking. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional promptly.

2. How often should I perform an oral cancer self-examination?
It is recommended to perform a self-examination once a month. This frequency helps you become familiar with the normal appearance and feel of your mouth, making it easier to notice any changes that might occur between examinations.

3. Can oral cancer be prevented?
While not all cases of oral cancer can be prevented, you can significantly reduce your risk by avoiding tobacco products, limiting alcohol consumption, using sunscreen on your lips, maintaining a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and receiving the HPV vaccine. Regular dental check-ups are also crucial for early detection and prevention.

4. Is there a specific age group that should be more vigilant about oral cancer?
Oral cancer can occur at any age, but it is more common in people over the age of 40. Individuals in this age group, especially those with risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol use, should be particularly vigilant. However, people of all ages should be aware of the symptoms and risk factors associated with oral cancer.

5. What should I do if I find something unusual during a self-examination?
If you detect any unusual changes such as sores, lumps, or patches that do not resolve within two weeks, it is important to seek advice from a healthcare professional, such as a dentist or a doctor. Early professional evaluation and diagnosis are critical for effective treatment.

6. Are there professional screenings for oral cancer?
Yes, dental professionals can conduct thorough oral cancer screenings during routine dental check-ups. These screenings usually involve a visual examination of all the parts of the mouth and a physical examination of the mouth and neck to feel for any abnormalities. If any suspicious areas are found, further tests may be recommended.

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