8 Signs of Oral Cancer to Watch Out For

Oral cancers have been linked to tobacco use, cigarette smoking, and alcohol use. Those who both smoke and drink are fifteen times more likely to develop oral cancer. Historically, men over 40 develop oral cancers more often, and African-American men are particularly at risk. However, those numbers are beginning to change. Scientists have recently identified a link between human papilloma virus version 16, also known as HPV-16, and oral cancer. This means that more women and more people under the age of 40 are developing oral cancer than ever before.

The Oral Cancer Foundation predicts that 42,000 people in the United States will develop oral cancer this year. The death rate for oral cancer is high, higher than that of cervical cancer, lymphoma, and thyroid cancer, among others. 8,000 people die from oral cancer each year, and occurrences of oral cancer are on the rise for the last five years. However, like many cancers, survival rates for oral cancer increase the earlier it is detected, so it’s vital to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of oral cancer.

1. Velvety patches in the mouth

Patches are one of the most common symptoms of oral cancer. Patches can be white (leukoplakia), red and white (erythroleukoplakia), and red (erthryoplakia). Each patch color can become malignant, but red patches are most likely to cancerous.

2. Sores or lesions on the face, neck, mouth or lips

We all get occasional sores on our mouths and lips, but cancerous sores are persistent and bleed often. If you have a sore on your mouth or lips for more than two weeks, contact your doctor immediately. Squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, is the most common type of oral cancer, accounting for 90% of diagnosed cases. Squamous cell carcinomas grow on the surface of the mouth, and they usually appear as sores or ulcers with firm borders, which may frequently bleed.

Find out more about early detection of oral cancer.

3. Lump on the lip, mouth, or throat or thickening of the cheek that can be felt with the tongue

Lumps in the mouth are not unusual. Warts, bony growths, cysts, and even non-cancerous tumors are fairly common occurrences. Malignant tumors will typically be hard and immovable. Though most lumps in the mouth are usually benign, it is absolutely important that you get any and all lumps and bumps checked out by a doctor because your chance of recovery and survival is greater the earlier cancer is detected.

4. Difficulty chewing or swallowing or difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.

Not only is difficulty chewing or swallowing painful and often scary, it could be a sign of something more serious. Tumors might be lurking in places that are unable to feel or touch. Though 90% of all oral cancers are squamous cell carcinoma, there are two other kinds of oral cancer, verrucous carcinoma, and minor salivary gland cancers. Verrucous carcinoma is often know as snuff dipper’s cancer because this form of cancer is common among those chew tobacco or use snuff. Salivary gland cancers are the most uncommon form of oral cancers, but there are a number of salivary glands in the mouth and it is possible, though not probably, to develop a number of different cancers in the salivary glands.

5. Swelling of the jaw

A special note to denture wearers:  If your dentures begin to fit poorly or cause you discomfort, make an appointment to see your dentist. Keep in mind that the swelling of any tissue indicates an underlying problem. Like many of the other symptoms of oral cancer, the jaw can swell for a number of reasons like an infection or trauma. So whether or not you’re a denture wearer, be sure to have your local general dentist check out any swelling you find in your jaw.

Other symptoms of oral cancer can include:

6. Unexplained numbness, sudden loss of feeling, or pain in the jaw, neck, or ear

7. Hoarseness, sore throat, or a change in the voice

8. Sudden and dramatic weight loss

Again, every single one of these symptoms can be caused by other factors. This is one of the reasons oral cancers are not diagnosed early. Many of us try and explain away such symptoms, or worse, ignore them and hope they go away on their own. But do yourself a favor and have your dentist examine these symptoms.


About Mark C. Marchbanks, D.D.S.

Dr. Mark Marchbanks has practiced dentistry in Arlington Texas since 1983. He enjoys caring for patients young and old. You can find Dr. Marchbanks on
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