While oral cancer is not one of the most common kinds of cancer, it can be deadly if not detected and treated in time. Approximately 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer every year, and the five-year survival rate is approximately 57%. Due to these statistics, it’s important to know the signs of oral cancer so you can take action if you notice them.
Signs of Oral Cancer
Oral cancer is actually a general term for oral cavity cancer (cancers of the mouth, including the tongue, lips, gums, and palate) and oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the throat). That means signs and symptoms may show up anywhere from the roof of the mouth to the throat and anywhere in between. Here’s some of the things to look for:
- Sore that doesn’t heal (this is the most common sign of oral cancer)
- White or red patch on lip, tongue, or bottom of the mouth
- Mouth pain that doesn’t go away
- Sore throat that doesn’t go away
- Lump or thickness in the cheek
- Lump in the neck
- Numbness in the mouth
- Difficulty swallowing, chewing, or moving the tongue or jaw
- Feeling of something being stuck in the throat
- Loose teeth
- Change in voice (hoarseness, loss of range, loss of volume, loss of stamina)
It can be easy to miss the first signs and symptoms of oral cancer or confuse them with something else. For example, mouth pain could be mistaken for toothache, hoarseness could be mistaken for a cold, or a discolored patch or sore could be attributed to herpes or a yeast infection. The key here is to pay attention to how long the symptom persists; if it’s there for more than two weeks, talk to your dentist about it.
Risk factors for oral cancer include the use of tobacco products and excessive alcohol use. Around 80% of people with oral cancer are tobacco users while 70% are heavy drinkers. Men are more likely to develop oral cancer than women and older people more likely than younger people.
Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment
It’s now very common, if not standard, for dentists to screen patients for oral cancer during check-ups by looking for sores, discolored patches, thickening of tissue, and more. If your dentist does find something, they will likely refer you to a specialist for testing and possible diagnosis. This is routine part of our evaluation during the periodic maintenance visits.
From there, depending on the type of cancer, treatment may be handled by an otolaryngologist (ENT doctor), an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, or an oncologist. Treatment is often surgery, alongside chemotherapy, radiation, and targeted drug therapy.
The Earlier the Better
As with all diseases, the earlier it’s detected, the better. Be sure to see your dentist yearly (or more often, if that’s what they recommend) and ask if they perform oral cancer screenings as part of your check-up. If you notice any unusual symptoms that persist longer than a couple weeks, follow up with a medical specialist as soon as possible, even if you “think it’s nothing.” You never know – it could save your life.