Your First Line Of Defence Against Oral Cancer

Contributed by: Dr Tanujaa Rajasekaran

Discover how regular visits to the dentist and routine self-checks can do more than just keep your smile shining — they could be lifesavers.

Dentists are our go-to for toothaches and gum care, yet their role extends far beyond this. They are also vital allies in early oral cancer detection, keeping an eye out for symptoms that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Oral cancer encompasses cancers of the mouth, tongue and the back of the throat. While it’s not one of the most common cancers in Singapore, it has come into the spotlight after former Nominated Member of Parliament Ms Janice Koh courageously shared her experience. Her story highlights the importance of awareness, as the impact of oral cancer is profound because of where and how it can develop.

Oral cancer may form in various parts of the mouth: on the tongue, the tissues lining the mouth and gums, beneath the tongue, at the base of the tongue, or even in the throat area behind the mouth. These areas are crucial for everyday activities such as speaking and eating, explaining why oral cancer can significantly affect one’s quality of life.

Treatment often involves surgery, and possibly radiation therapy and chemotherapy for comprehensive care. For more advanced cases, a multi-faceted treatment approach may be necessary to manage the condition effectively.


Detecting oral cancer early can significantly improve treatment outcomes. For individuals who are diagnosed and treated promptly, the survival rate is notably high, ranging from 85 to 90 per cent. Conversely, for those diagnosed at later stages, the survival rate falls to around 40 per cent, highlighting the life-saving potential of early detection.

Sometimes symptoms are clear, such as persistent mouth bleeding, a noticeable lump or swelling that will not heal. However, some symptoms can be subtle and may go unnoticed.

The good news is that regular self-examination of the mouth is straightforward, can be performed at home and is an effective first step in recognising early signs, allowing you or a loved one to seek medical advice without delay.


Quick and proactive steps toward maintaining your oral health.

What You'll Need: A mirror in a well-lit area; a flashlight can be handy for better visibility. Make sure to wash your hands first.

Let's Get Started: It's essential to be thorough with your self-examination since oral cancer can appear in any part of the mouth.

Neck: Use your fingers to gently probe under your jaw for any unusual swellings. Check that both sides feel symmetrical.

Lips: Lift your upper lip and lower your bottom lip to inspect the inside for any sores or colour changes. Feel the full contour of your lips for any irregularities or texture changes.

Gums: Methodically examine both the inside and outside of your gums, feeling for anything out of the ordinary.

Cheeks: One at a time, pull your cheeks out to see inside. Look for any discoloration or patches. Gently probe the inner cheek for any sores or spots.

Tongue: Extend your tongue and inspect each side closely. Check the top, sides and underneath for any unusual signs.

Mouth: With your tongue out, examine the roof and floor of your mouth. Feel for any bumps or swellings that seem out of place.

Being familiar with your mouth's landscape helps you discern what's normal and what may warrant a professional look. If you find something concerning, or if you're unsure, consult your dentist or doctor.

Source: Mouth Cancer Foundation


Discovering a sore in your mouth can be concerning, but it’s important to remember that not all sores are cause for alarm. Many are simply ulcers, which generally heal within a couple of weeks.

Here’s how to distinguish between mouth ulcers and more serious signs of mouth cancer:

  • Mouth ulcers are typically painful, while areas affected by mouth cancer often are not.
  • Unlike mouth ulcers, which usually resolve within two weeks, mouth cancer lesions tend to persist and can spread.
  • Patches indicative of mouth cancer may feel rough and hard, and are not easily removed by scraping.
  • Look for unusual patches in the mouth: mouth cancer might show up as mixed red-and-white areas or as large, white patches, particularly on the tongue, back of the mouth, gums or cheeks.

Should you experience any of the signs, or if it is accompanied by a fever, consult a medical professional. Medical professionals are trained to distinguish between benign issues and those that require further investigation.

Remember: keeping up with your twice-a-year dental check-up plays a crucial role in maintaining overall oral health and catching potential problems early.

Sources: Medical News Today, National Health Service


Knowing the factors that can increase the risk of oral cancer is a step towards prevention.

  • Tobacco: The use of cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco is one of the top contributors. Early studies1 show that vaping is also linked to oral cancer.
  • Alcohol consumption: Heavy drinking is associated with an increased risk of oral cancer, often in combination with tobacco use.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Particularly the HPV 16 type, which is sexually transmitted.
  • Age: As we grow older, the risk for developing oral cancer goes up.
  • Sun exposure: Just like with skin, too much sun on your lips can increase oral cancer risk.
  • Diet: A diet high in processed food and red meats, and low in fruits and vegetables can increase the risk of oral cancer.
  • Genetics: Family history can play a role, making some people more susceptible.
1Chhina MS. ‘Are e-cigarettes a safer alternative to reduce incidences of oral cancer?’ Evid Based Dent. 2023 Nov 30. doi: 10.1038/s41432-023-00956-7. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 38036651.


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