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. The floor of your mouth and lymph nodes in your neck will also be checked.
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.