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Dental and Oral Health Center

Diagnosing Oral Cancer



How can my dentist tell if I have oral cancer?


Most oral cancers appear as a white or red area that has an irregular surface, sometimes with an open sore. Usually the tumor tissue is firmer that the surrounding normal tissue. The most common oral cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, is found most frequently on the side or undersurface of the tongue, the floor of the mouth or the side of the soft palate (roof of the mouth near the tonsils). The gingiva (gums) and buccal mucosa (inner surface of the cheeks) are not affected as often. Other types of oral cancer, such as salivary gland malignancies and lymphoma, will show up as lumps that usually affect the back part of the hard palate (roof of the mouth). These changes can be seen rather easily by the dentist, although other things can sometimes look like oral cancer. For this reason, if an abnormality is present in the mouth and oral cancer is a possibility, a biopsy needs to be done in order to find out exactly what is going on.

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Response by:

Carl M Allen, DDS, MSD Carl M Allen, DDS, MSD
Professor Emeritus of Oral Pathology
College of Dentistry
The Ohio State University