Know the Signs & Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Jamie J. Alexander on April 18, 2022

“As the nation observes the 15th Annual Oral Cancer Awareness Month in April, dentists across the country are reminding patients that regular oral cancer examinations are the best method to detect oral cancer in its early stages,” says Boynton Beach, FL dentist, Dr. Jamie J. Alexander. “Your mouth is one of your body’s most important early warning systems. In between dental visits, it is important to be aware of the following signs and symptoms. We urge you to call us right away if you have any immediate concerns. Do not delay calling for an examination of the signs and symptoms you observe do not improve or disappear within two to three weeks.”

The Signs & Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Symptoms are feelings or sensations a person has, and signs are observable characteristics. Dentists and medical doctors use symptoms, signs, and testing to make a diagnosis. Cancer is a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body. Awareness of the following signs and symptoms of this disease in the mouth and throat will enable you to quickly seek a definitive diagnosis:

  • a sore, or soreness or irritation that doesn’t go away
  • a bleeding sore that doesn’t heal
  • red or white patches in the mouth or on the lips
  • pain, tenderness, or numbness in the mouth or on lips
  • lumps, thickening tissues, rough spots, crusty or eroded areas
  • difficulty chewing, swallowing, speaking, or moving your jaw or tongue

“But I don’t smoke.”

Many people who don’t smoke are greatly surprised when signs and symptoms of oral cancer occur. Historically, smokers, tobacco chewers, and heavy drinkers older than 50 years of age had the highest risk of developing oral cancer. Today oral cancer occurs more frequently in younger, nonsmoking people due to the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus 16 (HPV), and there are multiple other factors that increase the risk of oral cancer.
When HPV is a cause, cancer usually involves tonsillar tissue, including the base of the tongue. The American Dental Association reports that HPV-caused oropharyngeal cancer is often associated with one or more of the following signs and symptoms that last more than two to three weeks:

  • a painless lump or swelling felt in the neck
  • sore throat, difficulty swallowing, or pain when swallowing
  • swelling of the tonsillar areas at the back of the mouth
  • a change in voice
  • difficulty moving the tongue

Note that 75% of Americans are exposed to HPV in their lifetime and 24% are chronically infected putting them at risk of oral cancer. The most common early sign is a painless lump in the neck. Do not delay in having this sign checked by your dentist or doctor. Today, HPV-related oral cancers are highly treatable if diagnosed early.

Risk Factors of Oral Cancer

In addition to tobacco use, heavy alcohol consumption, and the HPV virus, additional risk factors are a weakened immune system due to HIV or having undergone an organ transplant, sun exposure to the lips, having previously had oral cancer, a family history of oral cancer, a diet deficient in fruits and vegetables, and poor oral hygiene.

Most oral cancers do not have a genetic component, so why does having a family history of oral cancer increase the risk in some people? Some gene mutations linked to cancers of the mouth and throat can be passed down from parent to child. And there are two inheritable diseases that make people more prone to oral cancer. One is Fanconi anemia which is associated with bone marrow failure. The other is dyskeratosis congenita, which is associated with skin color changes on the neck and chest, and white patches in the mouth called leukoplakia.

Early Detection Leads to Best Treatment Outcomes

Treatment of oral cancer is customized based on the location, nature, and size of cancer. After examining his Boynton Beach dental patients, Dr. Alexander refers those with signs and symptoms to specialists for diagnosis and treatment. When caught early oral cancers can be effectively treated with minimally invasive operations such as robotic surgery and laser microsurgery, advanced radiation therapy techniques such as intensely modulated radiation therapy and proton therapy, advanced drug therapy options such as target chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery if needed.

“If you have never had an oral cancer examination, or it has been six months or more since your last oral exam, there is no better time to schedule one than now,” says Dr. Alexander. “Our entire team looks forward to serving new Boynton Beach area patients. We are comprehensive and personalized in our care.  Learn more about us.”