Oral Cancer (cont.)

What are the symptoms of oral cancer?

Early detection

Your regular checkup is a good time for your dentist or doctor to check your entire mouth for signs of cancer. Regular checkups can detect the early stages of oral cancer or conditions that may lead to oral cancer. Ask your doctor or dentist about checking the tissues in your mouth as part of your routine exam.

Symptoms

Common symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Patches inside your mouth or on your lips that are white, a mixture of red and white, or red
    • White patches (leukoplakia) are the most common. White patches sometimes become malignant.
    • Mixed red and white patches (erythroleukoplakia) are more likely than white patches to become malignant.
    • Red patches (erythroplakia) are brightly colored, smooth areas that often become malignant.
  • A sore on your lip or in your mouth that won't heal
  • Bleeding in your mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • Difficulty wearing dentures
  • A lump in your neck
  • An earache

Anyone with these symptoms should see a doctor or dentist so that any problem can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. Most often, these symptoms do not mean cancer. An infection or another problem can cause the same symptoms.

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

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If you have symptoms that suggest oral cancer, the doctor or dentist checks your mouth and throat for red or white patches, lumps, swelling, or other problems. This exam includes looking carefully at the roof of the mouth, back of the throat, and insides of the cheeks and lips. The doctor or dentist also gently pulls out your tongue so it can be checked on the sides and underneath. The floor of your mouth and lymph nodes in your neck also are checked.

If an exam shows an abnormal area, a small sample of tissue may be removed. Removing tissue to look for cancer cells is called a biopsy. Usually, a biopsy is done with local anesthesia. Sometimes, it is done under general anesthesia. A pathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only sure way to know if the abnormal area is cancerous.

If you need a biopsy, you may want to ask the doctor or dentist some of the following questions:

  • Why do I need a biopsy?
  • How much tissue do you expect to remove?
  • How long will it take? Will I be awake? Will it hurt?
  • How soon will I know the results?
  • Are there any risks? What are the chances of infection or bleeding after the biopsy?
  • How should I care for the biopsy site afterward? How long will it take to heal?
  • Will I be able to eat and drink normally after the biopsy?
  • If I do have cancer, who will talk with me about treatment? When?
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/28/2014

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