Oral Cancer: Symptoms and Causes

Oral Cancer: Symptoms and Causes

Whether they experience mouth cancer, tongue cancer, tonsil cancer, or throat cancer, about 53,000 people in the U.S. will be newly diagnosed with Oral Cancer in 2019. April is Oral Cancer Awareness month, and we want to make sure all of our patients know who is at risk and what warning signs or symptoms they should be aware of.

Oral cancer refers to three things: cancer that occurs in the mouth itself, on the exterior lip of the mouth, or in the very back of the mouth (the oropharynx). Most people are diagnosed with oral cancer could have contracted it through one of two ways: the long-term use of cigarettes or smokeless tobacco, or through exposure to HPV-16 (human papilloma virus version 16). For a small number of people, there is no identifiable cause, which likely means their cancer is related to a genetic predisposition or an otherwise unidentified risk factor.

If you are a tobacco user, the best thing you can do is quit as soon as possible. Get help at smokefree.gov or quit.com. Even if you have never smoked, you may be surprised to find that you are still at risk for oral cancer. Excessive alcohol drinkers are about six times more likely to get oral cancers, as are people who spend a lot of time in the sun. HPV is the fastest growing cause of back of the mouth cancers. The CDC reports that virtually ALL Americans will be exposed to this virus early in their life.  For most healthy people, their immune system recognizes the virus as a threat and is able to eliminate it. For others, this symptom-less virus can later progress into cancer. Often, there’s no way of knowing whether your immune system is fighting the virus or not until it is too late.

If oral cancer is found at an early stage of development, it has about an 80% to 90% survival rate. Unfortunately, many cancers are found at later stages simply because many people are unaware or uninformed. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, oral cancer kills one person in America every hour of every day. However, with their “Check Your Mouth™” initiative, the Oral Cancer Foundation is empowering people to know what to look for and how to get help.

The most common symptoms of oral cancer include:

These are just a few of symptoms of oral cancer. If you notice any of these, you should visit your primary care physician.

Before you experience any of these symptoms, there is a very simple way to check for oral cancer yourself. By performing a 5-10 minute routine self-exam, you can catch symptoms early and increase your rate of survival if you do happen to notice signs of oral cancer.

Stand in front of your bathroom mirror and look at the sides of your face and neck. Both should look relatively the same, and should be generally symmetrical. If one side is swollen or looks abnormal, you should seek out a professional. You should look and feel the areas around your neck, under your jawline, and in the hollow area above your collarbone. These areas contain lymph nodes, which can give you key information about your health. Usually, you shouldn’t be able to feel your lymph nodes. If you feel swollen, tender areas about the size and shape of an almond, this may signal an infection. Infections are usually not cause for concern, but should still be evaluated by your doctor. If your lymph nodes are enlarged but not painful, and feel firm and fixated, this is a red flag. You should visit your physician immediately if your lymph nodes are enlarged, painless, hard, a fixed lump, or visibly swollen.

Next, you should look inside your mouth. Check your lips, gums, the insides of your cheeks, your tongue, the floor of your mouth, the roof of your mouth, and the back of your throat- including your tonsils. To most effectively check all of these areas, you’ll need a tongue depressor, a light source, a mirror, and a piece of gauze. You can even order a Check Your Mouth™ kit, which includes a lit tongue depressor.

Here’s what you should look for in each area of your mouth:

Lips should be uniform in color and texture, and have a defined border. Feel around for any thickened areas or lumps.

Gums should be pale pink close to your teeth, and deeper red where the gums meet the inside of your cheeks. Be on the lookout for discolorations, ulcerations, abnormal surface textures, or any sores that bleed easily when touched.

Cheeks have similar warning signals as gums. Any growths that rise above the rest of the tissue may be problematic.

The tongue is a high-risk area for oral cancer, and should be examined extra carefully. Look at and feel the top of the tongue, both sides, and the undersides. Be on the lookout for any bumps or lumps that aren’t consistent with the papillae. Stick out your tongue; you should be able to move it freely from side to side. Using the gauze, move the tongue from side to side to check for any abnormalities or changes in symmetry. Feel the surface of the tongue: you should be on the lookout for small, hard areas about the size of a pea. This may be an early warning sign.

The floor of the mouth should not have any hard areas, and should be free of discolorations and ulcerations.

The roof of the mouth should also be uniform in color, and free from sores or ulcerations.

Finally, check the back of the throat and the tonsils for abnormalities, which typically present as only one swollen tonsil that is NOT painful and stays swollen for three weeks or longer. Back of the mouth cancers are on the rise, and they are often not as easy to spot.

Swollen lymph nodes, as mentioned early on, are often one of the earliest indicators for oral cancer. You should also look for the following warning symptoms: painless but difficulty with swallowing, a chronic sore throat, hoarseness that lasts for over two weeks, or an ear ache in only one ear. What are YOU going to do this month to spread the word about oral cancer awareness? Share this post on Facebook, or post a video of you doing a self-examination.