Oral Cancer: What You Need to Know and How Your Dentist Can Help

Oral or mouth cancer can appear as a lump or sore spot that will not heal or go away. This cancer can affect the roof and floor of your mouth, the throat, and your lips, tongue, and cheeks. Like most cancers, the prognosis is much better, the earlier the diagnosis.


Unfortunately, the first symptoms of mouth cancer are often ignored. It is frequently diagnosed at a stage when treatment is much more difficult and where the condition may have become life-threatening.

This is why regular checkups with your dentist are absolutely vital. Dentists are trained to spot the early signs of oral cancer and your regular checkups do include a screening for this disease. Regular checks can be especially important if you are more at risk of developing oral cancer.

So, what are the signs you should look out for?

Common Symptoms of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer can cause lots of different symptoms. You may notice a swelling or thickened area in your mouth that may feel rough or lumpy. Oral cancer can cause red or white, or speckled white combined with red patches developing in the mouth. Additionally, these may feel velvety to touch. Other common symptoms include unexplained oral bleeding and unexplained loss of feeling. Furthermore, you may also notice a numbness or tenderness in any area of your mouth, face or neck.

Persistent sores on your face, neck or in your mouth and which bleed easily and fail to heal within a couple of weeks should always be investigated. Oral cancer can cause soreness or a feeling that something is caught in your throat, making it difficult to comfortably chew and swallow food or to speak. It can also affect your jaw, making painful or awkward to move properly or to move your tongue.

You may develop a chronic sore throat or notice your voice sounds hoarse or has changed. Oral cancer can even cause ear pain. If you wear dentures or other dental appliances, oral cancer can change the way they fit or may change the way your teeth occlude or bite together. It’s likely your dentist is the only medical professional who regularly examines the inside of your mouth.

If you notice any of these symptoms or are at all worried, it’s always best to make an appointment for a checkup. It’s likely that the problem is caused by something completely different such as gum disease, a sinus infection or something similar. A dentist would certainly rather offer reassurance to a patient than have to make a late diagnosis.

What Are the Risk Factors for Oral Cancer?

If you are a man then you’re twice as likely as a woman to develop oral cancer, with men aged 50 and over facing the greatest risk. Other risk factors include smoking, with smokers six times more likely to develop some form of oral cancer compared to non-smokers. If you use smokeless tobacco such as snuff or chewing tobacco, you’re 50 times more likely to develop cancer of the cheeks, gums or the lips.

People who consume alcohol to excess are six times more likely to develop some form of oral cancer compared to teetotalers. Being exposed to an excessive amount of sun at an early age will increase your risk. Being exposed to the human papillomavirus and having a family history of cancer will also increase your risk. In spite of this, it’s important not to forget that a quarter of all oral cancers are diagnosed in people who do not have any known risk factors.

People who do not smoke and who only have the occasional drink also get diagnosed. This does highlight the fact that everyone should have regular screenings for this disease.

What Happens during a Regular Screening for Oral Cancer?

A regular screening for oral cancer is extremely non-invasive and often you may not realize it is happening. Your dentist will closely examine the inside of your mouth for any changes to the color or texture of your oral tissues. He/she will also check for any signs and symptoms that require further investigation. Some dentists will use a special device to examine the inside of your mouth where any suspicious tissues will fluoresce in a slightly different way to healthy tissues.

Some dentists will simply carry out a visual examination with the naked eye. If they spot anything wrong or if you have reported noticing any changes, your dentist may take a small biopsy of cells. This can be done using an oral brush which is quick and painless. They may either choose to take a small tissue sample using a scalpel. The sample will be carried out using local anesthesia to ensure you do not feel anything.

If anything is wrong, you can then be referred to a specialist. Treatment for oral cancer is very similar to other cancer treatments. They use radiation therapy and chemotherapy, and surgery to help destroy or remove cancer cells.

Reducing Your Risk of Developing Oral Cancer

Following a healthy lifestyle will help reduce your risk of oral cancer and probably your risk of developing other cancers. It’s best not to smoke and to avoid drinking to excess. Make sure you eat a well-balanced diet that will enable your immune system to remain healthy and strong. If you do go out in the sun, wear appropriate sunscreen, particularly on your lips and don’t stay out too long.

It can also be useful to carry out a quick self-examination once a month. This will help you learn which tissues are perfectly normal so you will be more likely to detect any small changes month to month. All you need to do is to closely examine the inside of your mouth using a mirror in a well-lit area. Try to tilt your head right back so you can see the roof of your mouth and use your fingers to see the inside of your cheeks.

Carefully lift up your tongue so you can look underneath, and to run your tongue over the oral tissues will help you detect any changes to texture. Gently feel along your neck for any lumps and bumps or enlarged lymph nodes. 

If you are at all worried that something might be wrong, then please contact your dentist for more information. You can always book an appointment with your dentist and he/she can check to see if you are due for an oral cancer screening.