A dentist screens for preliminary oral cancer, and exams should be done annually, Mayo Clinic states. The screening consists of inspecting the patient's mouth for lumps, red or white patches, sores, and other abnormalities. This is done by feeling the patient's mouth with gloved hands, having the patient rinse his mouth with dye that exposes any abnormal cells, or by shining a light into the patient's mouth to highlight abnormal patches. Abnormalities discovered may warrant a biopsy.
A biopsy consists of taking a small piece of suspicious tissue for examination under a microscope to determine whether the cells are infected with cancer. The most traditional type of biopsy is an incisional biopsy, notes The Oral Cancer Foundation. In this procedure, the doctor removes part of the lesion and sends it to a pathologist to examine the tissue for malignant cells.
When dealing with larger masses, such as enlarged lymph nodes, the doctor may choose to perform a fine-needle biopsy, explains The Oral Cancer Foundation. This technique is reliable and relatively inexpensive. To perform a fine-needle biopsy, the doctor inserts a small needle attached to a syringe into the suspicious mass, and cells are aspirated or pulled into the syringe as the doctor draws back the piston of the syringe. The method's success hinges primarily upon the accuracy of needle placement and on the skill and experience of the tissue pathologist examining the cells. Lastly, some dental offices perform what is referred to as a brush biopsy, where samples are collected via aggressive scrubbing of the area in question.