Symptoms of Oral Cancer

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Oral cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that affects the mouth, as well as the gums, lips, the inner lining of the cheeks, and tongue. Often, cancer of the oropharynx (which includes the tonsils, soft palate, back third of the tongue, and the back and side walls of the throat) is also lumped under the term "oral cancer." There are a number of symptoms associated with oral cancer, and they vary depending on the location of the cancer, as well as how far it has spread. Likewise, there are various complications that may occur as a direct result of oral cancer (for example, difficulty chewing) or as a result of treatment (for example, radiation-induced mouth sores).

By gaining knowledge about the symptoms of oral cancer, you are giving yourself the best chance at spotting cancer early, when it's more easily treatable.

oral cancer symptoms
Illustration by Verywell

Frequent Symptoms

While some oral cancers are discovered incidentally from a doctor or dentist, others are brought to attention based on a person's symptoms. Some of the more frequent symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • Non-healing sore or blister: A sore or blister in the mouth or on the lip that won't heal is the most common sign of oral cancer. Those that last longer than two weeks warrant a trip to the doctor.
  • Persistent pain: Generalized pain in the mouth or throat that will not go away is something you shouldn’t ignore, even if you can’t pinpoint the source.
  • White or red patch inside the mouth: This, especially if found on the floor of the mouth or the underside of the tongue, is a common sign of oral cancer. In the early stages, these white patches (called leukoplakia) and raised, red patches (called erythroplakia) are signs of a pre-cancerous condition known as dysplasia. If left untreated, they can worsen and become cancerous. Moreover, any unusual bleeding from these patches (or any bleeding in the mouth of an unknown origin) is a definite sign you should visit your doctor immediately.
  • Difficulty with mouth movements: Any difficulty chewing or speaking, moving the jaw, moving the tongue, or a feeling that there is something foreign in the throat should be checked by a doctor as soon as possible. While these symptoms may be caused by any number of other health conditions, it's best to get it evaluated by your primary care doctor or an ear/nose/throat (ENT) specialist.
  • Swelling or lump: Any swelling or lump formation in the cheek, jaw, or neck should also be checked. In some cases, the formation may be accompanied by an unexplained numbness and/or pain in the area. At other times, there is little, if any, pain.
  • Teeth or jaw changes: Any changes to the way your teeth fit together as if there was a sudden and unexplained change of jaw alignment, is a potential symptom of oral cancer. This may include dentures not fitting correctly or comfortably, as well as loose or painful teeth. 

Rare Symptoms

Less common symptoms of oral cancer include symptoms that resemble those found in temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, trigeminal neuralgia, or ear problems like:

  • Ear pain that may radiate to the jaw and cheeks
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Jaw stiffness and/or difficulty opening the jaw
  • Pain in the facial muscles or muscles used for chewing
  • Burning, tingling, or sharp shooting electrical facial sensations 

Complications

Depending on the location and stage of the cancer, various physical and quality of life-related complications may occur, both as a result of the cancer itself and the therapy required to treat it. 

Teeth, Tongue, and/or Bone Removal

If cancer has grown into a facial bone or tongue, surgical removal may be performed. Likewise, if a person is undergoing radiation therapy for oral cancer, some or all of their teeth or part of the jaw may need to be removed to prevent infection and bone death. This can significantly alter a person's physical appearance, in addition to affecting talking and eating. The upside is that with the advances in reconstructive surgery, the rebuilding of the bone and/or use of prostheses can minimize these complications. 

Breathing Problems

Some may experience trouble breathing as a result of oral cancer; for example, a tumor may be partially blocking the airway. In this case, a tracheostomy may be performed. During this surgical procedure, a hole is made in the front of the neck that leads to the windpipe (your trachea). The hole is kept open with a hollow tube called a tracheostomy tube to create a new airway.

Malnutrition and Dehydration

Obtaining adequate nutrition and hydration due to impaired chewing and/or swallowing—as a result, for instance, of tumor blockage or treatment-related scarring or narrowing—can be a major problem with oral cancer. To remedy this, your doctor may recommend placement of a feeding tube that allows nutrients to flow into your stomach.

Other treatment-related complications include a range of issues from swelling to mouth sores, dry mouth to loss of taste.

When to See a Doctor

Persistent (lasting for more than two weeks) and unexplained mouth or throat symptoms warrant a medical evaluation by your doctor or dentist. Even a visit that you think would just serve to put your mind at ease is worthwhile.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), at the time of diagnosis, more than 50 percent of people with oral cancer have regional or distant metastases, meaning the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes or tissues, or distant organs like the lungs. This is why being knowledgeable of the symptoms of oral cancer and getting anything abnormal evaluated (even if it's just a gut feeling that something is off) is wise. 

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