When you catch it early, oral cancer is much easier for doctors to treat. Yet most people get a diagnosis when their condition is too advanced to treat effectively.
If you see your dentist or doctor regularly and learn how to spot suspicious changes, you’ll have a much better shot at an early diagnosis.
Know the Symptoms
Sometimes oral cancer can cause painful sores, lesions, and growths. Other times, they may not hurt much or be obvious. Warning signs include:
- A mouth sore that doesn’t heal. This is the most common symptom
- A red or white patch in your mouth
- Trouble swallowing or chewing
- A lump or thick spot in your cheek
- Numb tongue or mouth
- A sore throat that doesn’t go away
- Swelling or pain in your jaw. If you wear dentures, they might be uncomfortable or hard to put in.
- Voice changes
- Weight loss
Staying on Guard
Your regular dental or medical exam is a good time to check for signs of oral cancer. Your dentist in particular knows what a healthy mouth should look like and probably has the best chance of spotting the cancer. Experts recommend getting checked every year starting at age 18, and sooner if you start smoking or having sex.
Oral cancer at the front of your mouth, which is common when you use tobacco or drink alcohol, is easiest to spot. Those in the back of the mouth can be harder to see. Doctors may use blue light or a flexible scope to see changes in your mouth.
If your doctor or dentist finds something suspicious, she will refer you to a specialist, such as an ear, nose, and throat doctor. Examining a tissue sample under a microscope will tell if it’s cancer.
Know Your Odds
Human papillomavirus (HPV). Nearly everyone who’s sexually active will get HPV at some point in life. A specific type of this virus is causing a growing number of otherwise healthy men under 50 to get cancers in the back of their mouths and throats from oral sex. The more people you and your partners have sex with, the bigger your risks.
Sun. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause lip cancers.
Age. Oral cancers can take years to grow. Most people find they have it after age 55. But more younger men are getting cancers linked to HPV.
Gender. Men are at least twice as likely as women to get oral cancer. It could be because men drink and smoke more than women do.
Poor diet. Studies have found a link between oral cancer and not eating enough vegetables and fruits.
Like other cancers, treatment for oral cancer depends on how advanced it is when caught. You most likely will have surgery with radiation therapy. You might get chemotherapy to help keep the cancer from spreading.