Every tissue of the body can have abnormal growths. The mouth and jaws are no exception. Most growths are benign. The ones we worry about are cancer. Pathology is the science of disease growths. Pathologists are the specialists who deal with this. A biopsy is sampling or removing completely something that is abnormal for the purpose of identification and treatment.
Cancers can and do grow in the mouth. Concomitant use of tobacco and alcohol are the primary causes. Sipping on whiskey with a cigar in your mouth all day long is the best way to get oral cancer.
Most oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This is fancy terminology for the type of abnormal cell growth that occurs. The most common places for this are the back, side border of the tongue, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, and the tissues behind the bottom back teeth. Sun exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer on the face and the lower lip is a prime spot for this.
Lesions that don’t heal after a couple weeks are cause for investigation. Red patches are bad, ulcers are bad, and white patches can be bad. Smokeless tobacco causes a defense reaction in the tissues where they get pebbly and whitish. This is, for lack of a better term, a callus. It is better not to dip at all, but if one has to, move it around. If any of the above mentioned signs occur, evaluation is necessary.
Other cyst and tumors can occur in the mouth and jaws. Most are not cancer. A tumor has the negative connotation of bad, but all it means is a solid mass. All solid lesions are tumors. All masses that have a skin lining of epithelium are cysts. All cysts and tumors should be investigated. Sometimes these form in the jaw bones and grow silently. They may or may not be associated with the teeth. It’s a good idea to have a panoramic radiograph (scanning x-ray of the jaws) taken every 3-5 years to evaluate everything. It’s better to find something small and remove it, rather than wait until it’s the size of a half dollar and bulging out of the bone.
Your general dentist should do routine screening, both clinically (visual) and radiographic (x-ray). Everyone should look in their mouth periodically to check for abnormalities. Referral to an oral surgeon; dermatologist; or ear, nose, and throat specialist should be done when something abnormal is identified.