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A Simple Self-Exam to Detect Oral Cancer

Cancer Care
Author name: Lee Health

“Know thyself” is timeless wisdom. Now, the Greeks may have meant you can live your best life by knowing your own character. But you can also live your best life by knowing your body, too, especially your head and neck.

April is oral cancer awareness month, and a quick self-exam of these body parts for anything out of the ordinary can save your life.

Oral cancer accounts for roughly 3 percent of all cancers diagnosed every year in the United States, or about 40.000 new cases annually. The disease is among the deadliest forms of cancer, too, with a death rate higher than that of cervical cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, brain, liver, and skin cancer.

“That’s why self-exams between regular dental check-ups are so important,” says head and neck oncologist Dr. Anthony Anfuso, who works with 21st Century Oncology alongside Lee Health at the Regional Cancer Center. “Among people diagnosed with oral cancer today, about half will be alive in five years. But when oral cancer is detected and treated early, treatment-related health problems are reduced, and survival rates may increase.”

6 easy steps to check yourself for oral cancer

Remember, your mouth is one of your body’s most important early warning systems. So, grab a bright light, a mirror, and say “ahh” to these simple steps at least once a month. Here’s how:

  1. Remove any dentures
  2. Look and feel inside the lips and the front of gums
  3. Tilt your head back and inspect and feel the roof of your mouth
  4. Pull the cheek out to see its inside surface as well as the back of the gums
  5. Pull out your tongue and look at all of its surfaces
  6. Feel for lumps or enlarged lymph nodes (glands) in both sides of the neck, including under the lower jaw

You’ll be looking for these signs and symptoms:

  • White and/or white patches
  • Any sore that fails to heal and bleeds easily
  • Abnormal lumps or thickening of the tissues
  • Chronic sore throat or hoarseness
  • Difficulty in chewing or swallowing
  • A mass or lump in the neck

Source: The American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons

Okay, I’ve checked the inside of my mouth. What about my neck and lymph nodes?

Lymph nodes help the body fight off infections, and your neck has hundreds of them. They trap bacteria, viruses and other sources of illness. Because they act like filters, it’s normal for your lymph nodes to occasionally swell when you have a cold, sore throat or infection.

Keep in mind that swollen lymph nodes are rarely due to cancer. But you should still self-examine! Here’s how:

  • Use your fingertips and move them in a circular motion from the corner of your jaw all the way forward to under your chin.
  • Do this on both sides of your neck.
  • Also, run your fingertips along the muscle that runs down the side of your neck to your collarbone.

You’ll be looking for:

A hard, painless, swollen node about the size and shape of a small almond.

When to have yourself checked by a dental or medical professional

If a node on one side of your neck feels different from its opposite on the other side, or if it doesn’t move around, if it is not tender/sore, and persists for more than two weeks.


Dr. Anthony Anfuso received his medical degree from the Medical College of Georgia and completed an otolaryngology residency at West Virginia University. He completed a fellowship at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital in Head and Neck Surgical Oncology and Microvascular Reconstruction. Dr. Anfuso specializes in the surgical management of malignant and benign tumors of the mouth, throat, larynx, neck, salivary glands, thyroid, parathyroid, and skin. He also performs reconstructive surgery of complex defects of the head and neck, including microvascular reconstructive surgery.

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