Oral cancer is most often found in the tongue, the lips and the floor of the mouth. It also can begin in the gums, the minor salivary glands, the lining of the lips and cheeks, the roof of the mouth or the area behind the wisdom teeth.
Oral Cancer Signs
It’s important to be aware of the following signs and symptoms and to see your dentist if they do not disappear after two weeks.
- A sore or irritation that doesn’t go away
- Red or white patches
- Pain, tenderness or numbness in mouth or lips
- A lump, thickening, rough spot, crust or small eroded area
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking or moving your tongue or jaw
- A change in the way your teeth fit together when you close your mouth
Other signs of metastatic oral cancer include:
- Sore in the mouth or throat that doesn’t heal
- Loose teeth
- Lump or thickening in the neck, face, jaw, cheek, tongue or gums
- Dentures that cause discomfort or do not fit well
- Difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving the tongue or jaw
- Persistent bad breath
- Unexplained weight loss
These symptoms usually do not mean you have cancer. However, it is important to discuss any symptoms with your doctor, since a correct diagnosis can help improve your chance for successful treatment. Also, these symptoms may signal other health problems.
Some people complain of a sore throat, feeling like something is caught in their throat, numbness, hoarseness or a change in voice. If you have any of these symptoms, let your dentist know, especially if you’ve had them for two weeks or more.
Oral Cancer Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting metastatic oral cancer is a risk factor. The main risk factors and metastatic oral cancer causes are:
Tobacco use: Most people with metastatic oral cancer use tobacco in some form. The risk increases with the length of the habit and the amount of tobacco used. Specifically, pipe smoking increases the risk for cancer of the lip and the soft palate. People who use chewing tobacco or snuff are more likely to develop cancer of the gums, cheek and lips. Living with a smoker or working in a smoking environment can cause secondhand or passive smoking, which also may increase risk.
Alcohol: Most people with oral cancer are heavy drinkers, consuming more than 21 alcoholic drinks each week. People who drink alcohol and smoke are six times as likely to get oral cancer as people who do not drink. The combination of tobacco and alcohol is particularly dangerous.
Oral Cancer Prevention
- Cancers of the mouth are among the most preventable cancers. One of the most important things you can do is visit a dentist once a year for a complete oral examination.
- To minimize your risk of developing metastatic oral cancer:
- Avoid tobacco in all forms.
- Drink alcohol in moderation
- Remove your dentures at night and clean them daily
- Have dentures evaluated by a dentist at least every five years
- Limit sun exposure; wear a lip balm with sunscreen and a hat with a brim
- Eat a well-rounded, healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables