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Why Regular Oral Cancer Self-Examinations Are Essential

Oral Cancer Self-Examinations

Oral cancer, encompassing cancers of the mouth, tongue, lips, and throat, is a significant public health concern that affects thousands of Australians each year. The importance of awareness and early detection cannot be overstated, as the survival rates significantly improve when the disease is identified early. This blog post delves into the essentials of oral cancer, its risks, symptoms, and the crucial role of self-examinations.

What is Oral Cancer?

Oral cancer refers to malignant cells found in the oral cavity and oropharynx. Common types of oral cancer include squamous cell carcinoma, which affects the surface cells of the mouth and throat, and other less common types that can affect the lips, salivary glands, and other oral tissues. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, oral cancer ranks within the top 15 most common cancers diagnosed in Australia, underscoring a need for increased public awareness and proactive health practices.

Risk Factors for Oral Cancer

Several factors can increase the risk of developing oral cancer. Tobacco use, including smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or chewing tobacco, is the most significant risk factor. Alcohol consumption, especially when combined with tobacco use, substantially increases the risk. Exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV), particularly HPV type 16, has also been linked to a higher risk of certain types of oral cancer. Moreover, prolonged exposure to the sun can increase the risk of lip cancer, a concern that is particularly relevant in Australia’s sunny climate.

Lifestyle choices can play a pivotal role in managing these risks. Reducing alcohol intake, quitting smoking, using lip balm with SPF, and maintaining good oral hygiene can significantly decrease the likelihood of developing oral cancer.

Symptoms of Oral Cancer

The early symptoms of oral cancer are often subtle and easily overlooked, which is why knowledge and vigilance are key. Symptoms may include:

  • Persistent sores on the face, neck, or mouth that bleed easily and do not heal within two weeks.
  • Unexplained numbness or loss of feeling in any area of the face, mouth, or neck.
  • Persistent sore throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat.
  • Unexplained difficulty in chewing or swallowing, speaking, or moving the jaw or tongue.
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable.
  • Voice changes, particularly persistent hoarseness or other voice alterations.
  • White or red patches on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth.
  • A swelling, lump or mass in the mouth or neck area.

It is crucial to monitor these symptoms and seek medical advice if any persist or worsen over time.

The Importance of Early Detection

Early detection of oral cancer significantly enhances treatment efficacy and increases survival rates. In its early stages, oral cancer can often be managed more effectively, with less extensive treatment and a better prognosis compared to cancers diagnosed at a later stage. According to Cancer Council Australia, the overall five-year survival rate for oral cancer patients significantly improves with early diagnosis and treatment.

Routine self-examinations can be a key tool in early detection, allowing individuals to identify potential symptoms early and seek professional evaluation promptly.

How to Perform a Self-Examination for Oral Cancer

Performing regular self-examinations can be a life-saving habit. Here is a simple guide on how to conduct an oral cancer self-examination:

  • Preparation: Ensure good lighting and use a mirror to get a clear view of all areas of the mouth. A small flashlight can also be helpful.
  • Visual Inspection: Look for any sores, discoloured tissue, or unusual growths. Check all surfaces of your gums, roof of your mouth, back of your throat, insides of the cheeks, and under the tongue. Don’t forget to examine the lips, both inside and out.
  • Physical Examination: Use your fingers to feel the tissue of the mouth and throat for any lumps, masses, or other irregularities. Notice if anything feels unusually hard or bumpy.
  • Consistency: It is recommended to perform this self-examination monthly. Mark it on your calendar as a regular health check, making it as routine as checking the smoke alarms.

By integrating these practices into your health routine, you empower yourself to take charge of your oral health and potentially detect oral cancer at a stage when it is most treatable. Remember, this self-examination does not replace professional medical evaluations, but it serves as a crucial first line of defence in the early detection of oral health issues.

When to Perform Self-Examinations

The most effective routine for oral cancer self-examinations is once a month. This frequency ensures that any new symptoms or changes can be detected early, giving you the best chance for timely medical intervention if needed. Performing these examinations regularly helps familiarise you with the normal feel and appearance of your mouth, making it easier to spot any deviations that could indicate the presence of oral cancer.

The best time to carry out these examinations is after you’ve completed your oral hygiene routine at night. This ensures that the mouth is clean, giving you the clearest view and the best conditions for a thorough examination.

What to Do if You Notice Symptoms

If you detect any of the symptoms mentioned earlier or other worrying changes during your self-examination, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional immediately. Do not wait to see if the symptoms will disappear on their own. Early professional assessment and potentially early intervention are key to effective treatment.

In Australia, healthcare providers are well-equipped to conduct further diagnostic tests if needed, such as biopsies, imaging tests, and referrals to specialists. These tests are crucial for confirming a diagnosis and determining the appropriate course of treatment. Remember, the goal of self-examinations is not to diagnose yourself but to identify potential issues early and seek timely medical advice.

Beyond Self-Examinations: Professional Screenings

While regular self-examinations are a valuable tool in the early detection of oral cancer, they do not replace the need for professional screenings and assessments. Regular visits to a dentist or doctor for professional oral examinations should be part of your routine health care. During these visits, professionals use advanced techniques and tools that can detect oral cancer signs that might not be visible or palpable to the untrained eye or hand.

Dentists, in particular, play a critical role in the early detection of oral cancer, as they are uniquely trained to recognise the subtle signs of early disease. These professionals also perform more detailed examinations that can assess areas not easily visible during a self-examination. Australian Dental Association guidelines suggest that oral examinations should be part of your regular dental check-ups, which typically should occur at least once a year.

The Role of Technology in Early Detection

Advancements in medical technology have greatly enhanced the ability to detect oral cancer in its earliest stages. Tools like VELscope, a special type of light that can help visualise abnormalities in the mouth that might not be visible under normal light, are examples of how technology is improving the effectiveness of oral cancer screening. Moreover, diagnostic aids such as biopsies and molecular tests offer definitive insights that guide treatment decisions.

Incorporating these technological advancements into regular healthcare routines significantly increases the chances of catching oral cancer early, when it is most treatable. Awareness and accessibility of such technologies should be promoted among the Australian public to enhance early detection rates.

Prevention Strategies

In addition to regular screenings, there are several preventive measures that can significantly reduce the risk of developing oral cancer. These include:

  • Avoiding tobacco products in any form.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Using a lip balm with an SPF to protect against ultraviolet radiation.
  • Practising safe sex to reduce the risk of HPV, which has been linked to certain types of oral cancer.
  • Maintaining a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, which can have a protective effect against oral cancer.

These preventive strategies, combined with regular self-examinations and professional screenings, form a comprehensive approach to reducing your oral cancer risk.

Oral cancer remains a significant threat, but with increased public awareness and proactive measures, its impact can be significantly mitigated. Regular self-examinations, professional screenings, technological advances in detection, and effective prevention strategies are all crucial components of the fight against oral cancer. By taking control of our health and utilising the resources available, we can improve outcomes and reduce the prevalence of this disease.

For personalised advice and professional oral health screenings, consider visiting Balmain Dentists, where experienced professionals can provide comprehensive care and guidance tailored to your needs.


1. How often should I perform an oral cancer self-examination?
It is recommended to perform an oral cancer self-examination once a month. This frequency allows for regular monitoring of any changes or symptoms that may arise.

2. What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?
Signs and symptoms of oral cancer may include persistent mouth sores, unexplained numbness or loss of feeling in the mouth, difficulty chewing or swallowing, voice changes, and white or red patches on the gums or tongue. Any unusual changes in the oral cavity should be promptly evaluated by a healthcare professional.

3. Are there any risk factors that increase the likelihood of developing oral cancer?
Yes, several risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing oral cancer. These include tobacco use (smoking or chewing), heavy alcohol consumption, exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV), prolonged sun exposure leading to lip cancer, and a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables.

4. Can oral cancer be detected early through self-examinations?
Yes, oral cancer can often be detected early through regular self-examinations. By familiarising yourself with the normal appearance and feel of your mouth and promptly identifying any changes or abnormalities, you can increase the likelihood of early detection and successful treatment.

5. What should I do if I notice any concerning symptoms during a self-examination?
If you notice any concerning symptoms during a self-examination, such as persistent mouth sores or unusual growths, it is important to consult a healthcare professional promptly. Do not wait for symptoms to resolve on their own, as early evaluation and treatment can significantly improve outcomes.

6. Is professional screening necessary if I perform regular self-examinations?
Yes, professional screening by a dentist or healthcare provider is still necessary even if you perform regular self-examinations. Professionals have access to advanced tools and techniques that can detect early signs of oral cancer that may not be visible or palpable during a self-examination. Regular dental check-ups should be part of your overall oral health maintenance routine.