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Recognizing oral cancer

Recognizing the symptoms of oral cancer is important for early diagnosis and treatment.

It's to your advantage if your doctor or dentist gets a little mouthy during your next checkup. A thorough mouth exam can protect you from oral cancer.

About 53,000 cases of the cancer are diagnosed in the United States each year, according to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

Scientists continue to study the disease to learn its cause and how to prevent it. Known causes include tobacco use, alcohol use (or both) and infection with human papillomavirus (HPV).

What is oral cancer?

Like cells anywhere in the body, cells in the mouth can start dividing uncontrollably and form tumors. The cells in cancerous tumors can break away, travel to other parts of the body, and start new tumors in other tissues or organs.

Oral cancer may affect the tongue, gums, inside of the cheeks or very top of the throat, where it meets with the back of the mouth.

Symptoms of oral cancer

Oral cancer usually occurs in people older than 40, but it can strike at any age. If any of the following symptoms last more than two weeks, the NIDCR recommends seeing a dentist or doctor:

  • A sore in the mouth that doesn't heal.
  • A lump or thickening in the cheek.
  • White or red patches on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth.
  • Soreness or a feeling that something is caught in the throat.
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing.
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue.
  • Numbness of the tongue or mouth.
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly.

Diagnosing oral cancer

An abnormal area in the mouth may require a biopsy. This involves removing some of the tissue and checking it under a microscope for cancer cells.

If the biopsy reveals cancer, x-rays and other tests will be done to see if it has spread beyond the mouth. The test results will help your doctor form recommendations for treatment.

Reviewed 5/23/2023

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The information found in the Health Library is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor does it represent the views or position of WHMC. Readers should always consult with their healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment, including for specific medical needs.