What are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer? Early Detection is Key!

By Dr. Brett Silverman | Aug 10, 2020 | General Oral Care, Oral Cancer
What are the Symptoms of Oral Cancer? Early Detection is Key!

(updated March 2024)

Routine visits to the dentist are not only important for keeping your teeth clean and healthy, but can also help detect oral cancer early on, talk about oral cancer symptoms with your dentist, and thus seek treatment.

As with any kind of cancer, early detection is key, and at Advanced Cosmetic & Family Dentistry we provide oral cancer screenings and exams to patients as part of their routine dental appointment.

One of the most common questions we hear from our patients are, “What are the signs and symptoms of oral cancer?” It’s important to understand that just because you are experiencing some of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have oral cancer, but if you are in the Alpharetta area, we encourage you to contact our office to schedule your appointment here.

What is Oral Cancer?

Cancer can occur when the division of abnormal cells becomes uncontrolled. The abnormal cells become cancerous and are referred to as “malignant.” What constitutes oral cancer? Oral cancer can include cancer of the lips, mouth, tongue, back of the throat, and even into the esophagus.

Stages of oral cancer and prognosis

The Cancer Treatment Centers of America outline various stages of oral cancer, including Stage 0, Stage I, Stage II, Stage III, and Stage IV.

A diagnosis of Stage IV oral cancer, the most advanced stage, does not necessarily indicate a poorer prognosis for cure and survival, as outcomes can vary among individuals. (source: https://oralcancerfoundation.org/discovery-diagnosis/stages-of-cancer/)

Each person’s experience with oral cancer is unique, and the disease may manifest differently in different individuals.

What is an oral cancer screening?

It’s possible you’ve already received an oral cancer screening and you simply weren’t aware! This screening is quick and painless and has become a routine part of dental exams. Your dentist will move your upper and lower lips away from the gums in order to get a clear view of your mouth. They will check the inside of your cheeks and jaw.

During your oral cancer exam, our dentist will also take the time to ask you to stick your tongue out and they will move it around and side to side to be able to see if there are any suspicious spots present. If something is of concern, they will refer you to a specialist who will more than likely request a biopsy of the spot(s) to determine what they’ve observed.

Advanced technology to catch oral cancer early

One recent technological advancement we’re excited about is a new handheld, pen-sized microscope that may help identify cancer cells earlier than ever before.

Catching oral cancer early makes survival far more likely. In this instance, advanced technology isn’t just about making our jobs or the patient’s experience better; it’s about saving lives.

Most common signs and symptoms of oral cancer

Here are a few symptoms that could indicate oral cancer:

  • Dramatic, unexplained weight loss. Oral cancer sufferers often experience unexplained weight loss. If you have lost a substantial amount of weight for seemingly no reason, you should see a doctor immediately.
  • A sore, irritation, or lump that won’t heal or that bleeds
  • A white or red patch in the mouth
  • Sore throat or difficulty swallowing
  • Difficult or painful chewing
  • Loose teeth
  • Tongue pain or numbness
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss
  • As indicated above, any of these symptoms could be benign, but they could also be an indication of some form of oral cancer that needs immediate diagnosis and treatment.

What causes oral cancer?

Oral cancer may develop either in the mouth or at the rear of the throat. The condition arises when cells within the mouth or lips undergo DNA mutations, leading to the growth and division of cancerous cells. These mutated cells proliferate, forming a single large tumor and spreading throughout the mouth or potentially to other regions of the head, neck, and body.

Although the precise cause of these mutations remains unclear, various factors have been identified through research that could elevate the likelihood of developing oral cancer, including:

  • Tobacco use of any kind (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff, etc)
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • A diet that is low on fruit and vegetables
  • Excessive sun exposure to your lips
  • A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • A weakened immune system
  • Age (oral cancer typically appears in patients over 40)

2023 oral cancer statistics

As of 2023, oral cancer remains a significant health issue in the United States. Here are some updated statistics, along with reputable sources:

  1. An estimated 54,010 new cases of oral cancer were diagnosed in the United States in 2023. (Source: American Cancer Society – cancer.org)
  2. Approximately 10,850 individuals died from oral cancer in the United States in 2023. (Source: American Cancer Society – cancer.org)
  3. The overall five-year survival rate for oral cancer is approximately 65% in the United States. Survival rates vary depending on factors such as the stage at diagnosis and the individual’s overall health. (Source: National Cancer Institute – cancer.gov)
  4. Tobacco use, including smoking and smokeless tobacco products, remains the leading risk factor for oral cancer. Smokeless tobacco increases the risk of oral cancer by 50 times. (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – cdc.gov)
  5. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is increasingly recognized as a risk factor for oral cancer, particularly among younger individuals. (Source: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research – nidcr.nih.gov)
  6. Early detection through regular dental check-ups and screenings is crucial for improving survival rates and treatment outcomes for oral cancer patients. (Source: Oral Cancer Foundation – oralcancerfoundation.org)

These statistics highlight the ongoing need for awareness, prevention, and early detection efforts to combat oral cancer in the United States.

What should I do now?

The prognosis for oral cancer is generally good, provided it is caught during the early stages. This is one reason it is so important to see us on a consistent basis, as an oral cancer screening is part of the routine dental exam performed at Advanced Cosmetic & Family Dentistry in Alpharetta.

Dr. Silverman and his team are trained to include this service and care as a part of your visit and by keeping consistent tabs on your mouth, and looking for any abnormalities or changes at every visit, will ensure that you are receiving preventative care that can positively affect your overall health.

This is not something you want to put off for another year, or even another month. Give our office a call to schedule your oral cancer screening today!