Do you know the difference between a symptom that is caused by virus or bacterial infection and one that is the result of oral cancer? A diagnosis by an ENT doctor will tell you for sure but it’s also important to know and understand the symptoms because treatment could lead to early, life-saving treatment.

In the United States, oral cancer accounts for 3% of all cancers and affects 49,700 people each year. Twice as many men than women are diagnosed with oral cancer, which occurs most commonly over the age of 40.

Most cases of oral cancer are preventable. According to the National Institutes of Health, most are related “to tobacco use, alcohol use (or both), or infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV).” Other risks include exposure to the sun and a diet that lacks fresh fruits and vegetables.

What is oral cancer?
It’s obvious by the name that oral cancer occurs in the oral cavity – the mouth. However, within the oral cavity, cancer can occur in many different areas and tissues. Health professionals diagnose oral cancer in two different categories, depending upon where it is located:

Oral cavity cancer can appear in:

  • Lips
  • Inside of the lips
  • Inside of the cheeks
  • Teeth
  • Tums (stomach or abdomen)
  • Front two-thirds of the tongue
  • Floor and roof of the mouth

Oropharynx cancer appears in:

  • Middle region of the throat
  • Tonsils
  • Tongue- on the tongue, base of the tongue, under the tongue

The oropharynx is a part of the pharynx and it’s situated between your soft palate and hyoid bone.

Diagnosing oral cancer
Oral cancers can be trickier than others to recognize because the symptoms can be mistaken for other health conditions like a cold, a sore throat, or a toothache. The difference is that common health issues like a cold will begin to resolve themselves in a matter of weeks. On the other hand, the first symptoms of oral cancer will linger unresolved for a longer period of time and eventually will begin to get worse.

Often the first healthcare professional to detect the signs and symptoms of oral cancers is a dentist. Regular dental exams may reveal the early signs of cancer in the mouth, gums, teeth and/or throat.

There are common signs and symptoms of oral cancer. According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, they include:

  • A sore in the mouth, throat, or on the lip
  • Irritation in the mouth or throat
  • A lump or thick patch in the mouth or throat
  • A white or red patch in the mouth
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Swelling in the jaw
  • Numbness in the tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • Pain in one ear without hearing loss
  • Pain in the mouth the persists

Other symptoms can include:

  • Loosening of the teeth or pain around the teeth or jaw
  • Voice changes
  • A lump or mass in the neck
  • Weight loss
  • Constant bad breath

Once identified, the dentist’s diagnosis and findings should be sent to a specialist for additional tests, imaging and the development of a treatment plan.

Early diagnosis of oral cancer leads to early treatment
If diagnosed early, oral cancer can be treated with surgery or radiation therapy. In some cases, a combination of both treatments and the addition of chemotherapy may be necessary. The treatment depends entirely on the location, size, and type of the cancer and the general health of the patient.

An ear, nose, throat (ENT) specialist, also known as an otolaryngologist can treat the cancer. He or she will refer you to other specialists should you need surgery. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons specialize in surgery of the face, mouth, and jaw.

There are ways to prevent oral cancer. They include quitting smoking, reducing excessive alcohol consumption, protecting one’s lips from the sun, and eating a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables. Oral cancer may be treated successfully, but prevention is the best treatment of all.