Oral Cancer Screening • Signs & Symptoms of Mouth Cancer
Oral Cancer

Oral / Mouth Cancer Symptoms

Many symptoms normally related with other mouth conditions may also be a warning sign of oral cancer. Although these symptoms do not necessarily signify cancer, it is important to seek the advice of a dental professional if noticed.

Early diagnosis is critical for successful mouth cancer treatment.

If you notice any abnormal changes in the mouth tissues, sores, white or red patches, irritation, swelling or bleeding that do not heal within two weeks, you should visit your dentist and ask for an oral cancer screening. Oral Cancer could look like a common ulcer, cold sore or a discoloration of tissue.

Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer

The possible early warning signs of mouth cancer include:

  • A persistent sore or lesion in the mouth that does not heal within two weeks.
  • A white patch on the mouth tissues (leukoplakia).
  • Red or speckled (white and red) patches present a greater risk (erythroplakia).
  • A thickening, a bump or swelling on the cheeks, lips, gums or elsewhere in the mouth.
  • Difficulty in chewing and swallowing. Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.
  • Soreness of the throat or feeling that something is caught in the throat.
  • Repeated unexplained bleeding in the mouth or wounds that do not heal within 2 weeks.
  • Tenderness or numbness or a tingling sensation anywhere on the tongue, cheeks, teeth, lips or jaw.
  • A change in the way the teeth or dentures fit together, caused by swelling of the jaw.
  • Other symptoms of oral cancer are changes in the voice, continuous pain in the mouth or ear and unexplained loss of weight.

Any abnormal changes in the mouth, gums, tongue or surrounding area could be symptoms of mouth cancer and they should be evaluated by a dental professional immediately.

The Importance of Early Detection of Oral Cancer

The death rate in oral cancer cases is one of the highest among all cancer types, because it is usually diagnosed in advanced stages. If a mouth cancer is detected and treated in early stages, before it invades in deeper tissue layers and before it has metastasized to the lymph nodes, the recovery rate is up to 80-90%. Early diagnosis is critical for successful mouth cancer treatment.

What does mouth cancer look like

Early detection can be difficult because oral cancer in early stages resembles with other non life-threatening problems of the mouth. It may appear as a usual sore in the mouth or as a lesion like those caused by biting the cheek or lip. Furthermore the symptoms of mouth cancer are usually painless, so in many cases they are ignored even if they get noticed.

Only your dentist or doctor can evaluate properly any symptoms and tissue changes that could be cancerous. Normally your dentist performs an oral cancer screening during the regular dental check-up visits. Remember that visiting the dentist every 6 months is important for preventing not only dental problems like tooth decay but also mouth cancer. It is important to find oral cancer as early as possible when it can be treated more successfully.

Ask your dentist to show you how to perform a self examination for early mouth cancer signs. Perform a self examination at least once a month, especially if you belong in the high risk groups (tobacco/alcohol users, age >40).

Oral Cancer Screening - Early Diagnosis of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer screening has become an important part of the examinations dentists perform in our mouth during our preventive dental visits. For this reason it is necessary to visit your dentist at least every 6 months even if there is no obvious dental problem.

The following tests may be used for the detection of oral cancer:

  • The first step for the diagnosis of oral cancer from your dentist or doctor is a physical examination of the lips and oral cavity (oral cancer screening). This includes checking the insides of the cheeks and lips; the gums; the roof and floor of the mouth; and the tongue. The neck is also checked for swollen lymph nodes. Your doctor will look for white or red patches, ulcerations, lumps, loose teeth, or other abnormalities.
  • If the dentist finds any area that seems suspicious for possible presence of oral cancer, a biopsy is necessary to check for malignancy. In this case you will probably be referred to an Oral Pathologist who is the dental specialist for oral cancer. Biopsy is the removal of a small portion of the suspicious tissue from the mouth, which is then examined under a microscope by a pathologist for the presence of cancerous cells. The tissue sample is usually taken surgically (incisional biopsy).

    Recently a new way to test for oral cancer is used by dental professionals, called Oral CDx. A small brush is used to collect the cell samples quickly and painlessly.

If the biopsy results confirm the presence of oral cancer, the patient's doctor needs to know the stage and extent of the disease in order to plan the best treatment. The doctor needs to know the exact location and size of the malignant tissue, and in what extent it has spread in other areas of the mouth or neck.

A number of imaging procedures can provide the necessary information:

  • X-Rays can provide a first indication of the size and location of the tumor.
  • CT, or CAT scan (Computerized-Axial-Tomography) can provide images of great diagnostic usefulness.
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan. Provides images that help to determine the extent of the tumor and whether the mouth cancer has spread to other tissues.
  • PET scan, or Positron Emission Tomography, a technology that displays the body's actual metabolism (of injected radionuclide glucose). Because cancer cells are dividing rapidly, their increased metabolic activity is detected on a PET scan.
  • Ultrasound. Ultrasound is especially good for providing information about the shape, texture and makeup of tumors and cysts.

However, these examinations are only able to detect the actual presence of masses, but a biopsy is required to verify that a mass is malignant. Detailed diagnosis gives the necessary information for the correct planning of a successful treatment of mouth cancer.

The cost involved with dental treatments can be significant and many patients may not afford it if they are not covered by their dental insurance. Learn how to choose a dental insurance plan that will provide the best dental treatment to yourself and your family.

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