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What are the signs of oral cancer?

Oral cancer can develop in any part of the mouth, including on the lips, gums, tongue or throat. Mouth cancer appears as a growth or sore, but there are a number of other symptoms you or your dentist may spot first.

What are the signs of mouth cancer?

A common indicator of oral cancer is sores in the mouth that do not heal as quickly as normal, or that don't go away at all. You may notice mouth ulcers or lip sores that don't get any better, or lumps in the mouth.

A common indicator of oral cancer is that sores in the mouth do not heal.

Symptoms may vary according to where the disease develops. If the cancer is on the tongue, you may notice bumps or swellings in the area, as well as thick white patches. Similar symptoms can occur where the cancer is on the gums. Throat cancer is often characterised by a hoarse voice or a sore throat, and if the disease is present in the jaw, it may present a mixture of these symptoms.

General signs of oral cancer to look out for are:

  • Bleeding in the mouth.
  • Problems or pain when swallowing, or feeling like something is caught in the throat.
  • Soreness or difficulty using your jaw.
  • Numbness in or around the mouth.
  • Unusual voice or speech difficulties, such as a new lisp.
  • Sudden, unexplained weight loss.
  • A lump in the cheek.
  • Red or white patches inside your mouth (though this is rare).

One of the more common signs of oral cancer elsewhere in the body is persistent lumps in the lymph nodes, which may become noticeable in the neck area. Mouth cancer may also occur in the salivary glands, sinuses, pharynx or larynx.

Any symptom that persists for more than two to three weeks is worth discussing with your dentist or doctor, as early detection is crucial in combating the disease.

What causes mouth cancer?

As with many health concerns, the causes are varied and not always known. Smokers, or those using tobacco in any way, and people who drink alcohol regularly are deemed more at risk of mouth cancer. It's important that dentists are aware of any such factors that could affect your oral health.

Scientists have also linked the human papillomavirus (HPV) to oral cancer, particularly in younger patients, and excessive sun exposure on the lips also increases the risk. The disease is more common in those over 45 years of age.

Smoking may contribute to oral cancer.Certain lifestyle factors may contribute to oral cancer, including smoking and heavy drinking.

How is oral cancer diagnosed?

Unfortunately, mouth cancer doesn't always present obvious symptoms in its initial stages, which is why it's crucial to have regular dental checkups. Early detection is key with mouth cancer, and your dentist is trained to spot abnormalities you may not be able to, or are unlikely to spot.

As part of your routine checkup, your dentist looks for the symptoms above and may also do a visual check of your lips and face, or feel for lumps in the neck or face. If cancer is suspected, your dentist may examine your neck and jaw too, and can refer you to a doctor for further examination.

You'll usually undergo a procedure known as a biopsy, which involves removing some the tissue to check for cancerous cells. The results of the biopsy determines any further tests required.

Treating oral cancer

There are several options for treating oral cancer, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.

There are several options for treating oral cancer, including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery. Both chemotherapy and radiotherapy focus on killing the cancerous cells with medication and X-rays respectively. The aim of surgery is to remove the cancerous cells and some of the surrounding tissue. You may be referred for more than one type of treatment, for example, surgery followed by a course of chemotherapy.

Oral cancer may spread to other parts of the body, either directly to nearby areas, or via the body's lymphatic system. When this happens, you may hear the disease referred to as metastatic oral cancer.

The outlook for oral cancer patients is generally good, and with early diagnosis, as many as 90 per cent of patients make a full recovery, according to the UK's National Health Service. 

Protecting yourself with regular checkups

Your dentist may be able to spot the early signs of mouth cancer before you've noticed any abnormalities. Regular checkups allow your dentist to spot changes quickly, and you can help them by ensuring they're aware of any risk factors, such as if you smoke or are a heavy drinker. 

To book a dental checkup, or discuss any concerns you may have about your oral health, contact City Dentists on 04 978 4964 or book an appointment online.

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