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Education Resources

Diagnosing Oral Cavity Cancer

If your doctor suspects oral cancer, he or she may use one or more of the following tests or procedures to make an accurate diagnosis:

  • Physical exam of the lips and oral cavity: An exam to check the lips and oral cavity for abnormal areas. The neck will be felt for swollen lymph nodes. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and medical and dental treatments will also be taken.
  • Endoscopy: A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist.
  • Exfoliative cytology: A procedure to collect cells from the lip or oral cavity. A piece of cotton, a brush, or a small wooden stick is used to gently scrape cells from the lips, tongue, mouth, or throat. The cells are viewed under a microscope to find out if they are abnormal.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine.
  • Barium swallow: A series of x-rays of the esophagus and stomach. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called an upper GI series.
  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body.
  • Bone scan: A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones with cancer and is detected by a scanner.