​"Survival rates for head and neck cancers improve when detected early,"

shares specialists from the Department of Head and Neck Surgery, Division of Surgery and Surgical Oncology, Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS). Both SGH and NCCS are members of the SingHealth group.

How to do a self-check for oral cancer


  1. If you are wearing dentures, remove them before doing a mouth inspection

  2. Use a pen-torchlight to shine a light into your mouth and look into a mirror

  3. Examine your mouth for the following signs and symptoms:

    • Non-healing ulcers

    • White or red patches

    • Blood-tinged saliva

    • Abnormal lumps

    • Loosening of teeth

    • Soreness at a particular site

  4. Be sure to check the following areas of your mouth:

    • Roof of mouth
      Tilt your head back to inspect your hard palate and soft palate

    • Lips
      Look and feel inside your lips

    • Tonsil area
      Examine your tonsil area at the back of your mouth

    • Cheeks
      Look and feel inside your cheeks

    • Tongue
      Stick out your tongue and look at the top and under surface

    • Floor of mouth
      Inspect this region by lifting your tongue up

    • Upper and lower jaw
      Inspect your upper and lower jaw

  5. If you have concerns, consult a Head & Neck specialist 

About head and neck cancers

There are at least 800 new cases of head and neck cancer in Singapore every year. Worldwide, the incidence of head and neck cancer is on the rise, possibly due to increased risk of human papillomavirus (HPV) associated oropharyngeal cancer especially in young females. There is also a rising incidence of thyroid carcinoma (also known as thyroid cancer).

Who is at risk of head and neck cancers?

  • Males over the age of 40 are more likely to contract head and neck cancer

  • Those infected with cancer-causing subtypes of human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr virus

  • Those who engage in the following:

    • Alcohol and tobacco use (smoking or chewing) – these are the two most important modifiable risk factors for head and neck cancers

    • Chewing paan (betel nut leaf)

    • High risk sexual practices such as oral sex

  • Those who have had exposure to:

    • Radiation to the head and neck region

    • Occupational exposure to asbestos or synthetic fibres

Common types of head and neck cancers

  1. Squamous cell carcinoma
    Most head and neck cancers such as oral cancer (most common head and neck cancer), laryngeal cancer (voice box cancer) and pharyngeal cancer (throat cancer) fall into this category.

  2. Nasopharyngeal cancer
    Nasopharyngeal cancer (also known as nose cancer) is a type of head and neck cancer that affects the upper part of the throat at the back portion of the nose. It is linked to the Epstein-Barr virus. Singapore has one of the highest incidences of nasopharyngeal carcinomas in the world.

  3. Thyroid carcinoma
    The incidence of thyroid cancer has tripled in the last three decades, mostly attributed to detection of asymptomatic patients during health screening.

  4. Salivary glands carcinoma
    This type of cancer is relatively less common.

  5. Skin cancer and sarcomas arising from the head and neck region
    This type of cancer is more common in the Caucasian population and is linked to excessive sun exposure.

Symptoms of head and neck cancers

  • A raised growth, swelling or lump in the neck 

  • Persistent sore throat or hoarseness

  • Dark spots, red or white rough patches in the mouth 

  • Burning or numbness in the tongue, lip or mouth

  • Bleeding from the nose or mouth 

  • Painful, sensitive, or loose teeth

  • A sore that does not heal

  • Difficulty in chewing, swallowing or talking

How are head and neck cancers detected and treated?

Head and neck cancers can be detected during self-conducted oral examination or during consultation with a doctor or dentist. Once they are suspected, biopsies and scans (eg. MRI or CT scan) can be used to diagnose the cancer.

Treatment will depend on the staging of the cancer, and can include surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy.

Ref: K21

Check out other articles on head and neck cancers:

Multidisciplinary Care for Head and Neck Cancer

Link Between Head and Neck Cancer and Depression

Head and Neck Cancer: Symptoms and Risk Factors

Head and Neck Cancer: Types of Cancers and Treatment