Tests and procedures used to diagnose mouth cancer include:

  • Physical exam. Your doctor or dentist will examine your lips and mouth to look for abnormalities — areas of irritation, such as sores and white patches (leukoplakia).
  • Removal of tissue for testing. If a suspicious area is found, your doctor or dentist may remove a sample of cells for laboratory testing in a procedure called a biopsy. Unusual cells can be removed using different techniques, but are most often cut away using a scalpel, scissors or another surgical tool. In the laboratory, the cells are analyzed for cancer or precancerous changes that indicate a risk of future cancer.

Mouth cancer stages

Once mouth cancer is diagnosed, your doctor works to determine the extent, or stage, of your cancer. Mouth cancer staging tests may include:

  • Using a small camera to inspect your throat. During a procedure called endoscopy, your doctor may pass a small, flexible camera equipped with a light through your nose to examine your throat and voice box. Your doctor looks for signs that cancer has spread beyond your mouth. Endoscopy can be done in the doctor's office and causes very little discomfort.
  • Imaging tests. A variety of imaging tests may help determine whether cancer has spread beyond your mouth. Imaging tests may include X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans, among others. Not everyone needs each test. Your doctor determines which tests are appropriate based on your condition.

Mouth cancer stages are indicated using Roman numerals I through IV. A lower stage, such as stage I, indicates a smaller cancer confined to one area. A higher stage, such as stage IV, indicates a larger tumor or that cancer has spread to other areas of the head or neck, or to other areas of the body. Your cancer's stage helps your doctor determine your treatment options.

Oct. 21, 2016
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