Learn about oral cancer, its causes, what it looks like AND
how to perform a self-examination

Sponsored by a grant from the Academiy of General Dentistry Logo



What is Oral Cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 53,000 Americans develop oral cancer every year and just over 10,000 people die of the disease annually. If oral cancer is detected in its earliest stage the survival rate is much greater.  The most common type of cancer that develops in the mouth is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).  By performing a  monthly Self Oral Cancer Screening (SOCS) you may be able to identify an early change in your mouth!

What can Oral Pre-Cancers and Cancers Look Like?

  • White spots with sharply defined borders from the normal tissue
  • Red spots with sharply defined borders from the normal tissue
  • Ulcers (open sores) that do not heal in 2 weeks
  • Lumps or bumps growing out of the tissue

Pre-Cancers: (Click to view full size images)


Cancers: (Click to view full size images)


Highest risk areas (places where most oral cancers develop):

  1. Sides and under surface of tongue
  2. Floor of mouth (part of the mouth under your tongue where the tongue rests)
  3. Soft palate and back of throat

What Causes Oral Pre-Cancer and Cancer?

  • Smoking tobacco, smokeless tobacco and heavy alcohol consumption. Smoking tobacco and drinking alcoholic beverages at the same time increases the risk even more.
  • Certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV), particularly type 16, have been shown to cause cancers more commonly in the oropharynx (soft palate, back of throat, back of tongue)
  • However, oral cancers can develop in people with no known risk factors, so everyone should monitor their mouths.

What can I do to prevent oral pre-cancer and cancer?

  • Stop smoking tobacco, stop using smokeless tobacco, stop heavy alcohol consumption, do not smoke tobacco products and drink alcohol together.
  • Have an oral cancer screening performed by an oral health professional once a year.
  • Vaccination to prevent human papillomavirus infection (prevents oropharyngeal cancer)

Self Oral Cancer Screening

  • Completing this process once a month could save your life!
  • This is the process of examining your own mouth for any signs of oral pre-cancer or cancer.
  • Wash your hands and have a small flashlight handy.
  • Remove any dentures or appliances so you can see all tissues in the mirror.

Examine the external surface of your lips, pull your lips out and examine all inside surfaces and your gums.




Look at the inside of both of your cheeks with your flashlight, then feel those areas with your fingers.




Look at the floor of your mouth (beneath your tongue) with your flashlight. Feel the floor of your mouth with your finger.




Stick out your tongue, examine the top, both sides, and under surface using your flashlight. Feel all of these areas with your fingers.




Look at your soft palate and back of your throat with your flashlight. (Do not stick your tongue out when you do this, it will get in the way of seeing the back of your throat)

SOCS Step 5 - back of throat

If you find something, see a dentist or dental specialist for an evaluation!