If you have symptoms of mouth cancer, your GP or dentist will carry out a physical examination and ask about your symptoms.
If mouth cancer is suspected, you'll be referred to hospital for further tests or to speak to a specialist oral and maxillofacial surgeon.
In 2015, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines to help GPs recognise the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer and refer people for the right tests faster.
See the criteria used to refer people with suspected oral cancer .
A small sample of affected tissue will need to be removed to check for the presence of cancerous cells. This procedure is known as a Biopsy .
The main methods used to carry out a biopsy in cases of suspected mouth cancer are:
The samples taken during a biopsy are sent to a specialist doctor called a pathologist, who examines them under a microscope.
They'll report back to the surgeon to tell them whether it's cancer and, if it is, what type and what grade it is.
An incision biopsy is usually carried out underlocal anaesthesia if the affected area of tissue is easily accessible, such as on your tongue or the inside of your mouth.
After the area has been numbed with a local anaesthetic , the surgeon will cut away a small section of affected tissue and remove it with tweezers.
The wound is sometimes closed with dissolvable stitches. The procedure isn't painful, but the affected area can be a little sore afterwards.
A punch biopsy is where an even smaller piece of tissue is removed and no stitching is used.
A fine needle aspiration cytology (FNAC) may be used if you have a swelling in your neck that's thought to be a secondary from the mouth cancer.
It's usually done at the same time as an ultrasound scan of the neck is carried out.
FNA is a bit like having a blood test . A very small needle is used to draw out a small sample of cells and fluid from the lump soit can be checked for cancer.
The procedure is very quickand the discomfort felt is the same as with a blood test.
A nasendoscope is a long, thin, flexible tube with a camera and a light at one end. It's guided through the nose and into the throat.
It's usually used if the suspected tissue is inside your nose, throat (pharynx) or voice box (larynx).
A nasendoscopy takes about 30 seconds. Local anaesthetic may be sprayed into your nose and throat to reduce any discomfort.
Occasionally, tissue may be taken using a telescopic punch biopsy. Sometimes the surgeon will let you see the images on the computer screen.
Apanendoscopyis carried out under general anaesthetic .It's used to investigate the same areas as a nasendoscopy, but uses larger telescopes that would be uncomfortable if you were conscious.
The scopes give better access, so the procedure can also be used to remove small tumours.
If the biopsy confirms that you have mouth cancer, you'll need further tests to check what stage it's reached before any treatment is planned.
These tests usually involve having scans to check whether the cancer has spread into tissues next to the primary cancer, such as the jaw or skin, as well as scans to check for spread into the lymph glands in your neck.
It's rare for mouth cancer to spread further than these glands, but you'll also have scans to check the rest of your body.
Tests you may have include:
The X-rays and scans will be looked at by a specialist doctor called a radiologist. They'll write a report and put iton the hospital computer system. The report forms a major part of decisions about staging.
After these tests have been completed, it should be possible to determine the stage and grade of your cancer.
Staging is a measure of how far the cancer has spread. The TNM system of staging is used for staging mouth cancer:
The grade describes how aggressive the cancer is and how fast it's likely to spread in future.
The three grades of mouth cancer are:
Staging and grading will help determine whether you have:
Staging and grading your cancer will help your surgeon and multidisciplinary team (MDT) decide how you should be treated.
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about the staging and grading of mouth cancer .
Read about mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, including information about symptoms, types, causes, treatment, possible complications and reducing the risks.
Read about the symptoms of mouth cancer. Common symptoms are sore mouth ulcers that don't heal and unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or neck glands.
Read about the causes of mouth cancer. The two leading causes of mouth cancer in the UK are tobacco and alcohol.
Read about how mouth cancer is diagnosed. After a physical examination, you'll have a biopsy to remove a tissue sample for testing. You may also need further tests.
Find out how mouth cancer is treated. The type of cancer, its size and how far it's spread will be considered. Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy are the three main treatments.
Read about the complications of mouth cancer and its treatment, which can include difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) and speech problems. These can have an emotional impact.
Read about the day-to-day practicalities of living with mouth cancer, including work and money matters, plus information for people caring for someone with the condition.