Oral Cancer: Catch it Early

Every year, about 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer and cancers of the throat, tonsils and back of the tongue. Of these patients, 1 in 5 will die from their disease. The high mortality rate is due, in part, to the fact that most oral cancers aren’t diagnosed until the latter stages.

Using tobacco, whether in the form of cigarettes, pipes, cigars or chewing tobacco, greatly increases risk of developing—and dying from—oral cancer. Heavy alcohol consumption is another significant risk factor. (Heavy drinking is defined as an average of two or more drinks per day for men and an average of more than one drink per day for women.) Being both a heavy drinker and a smoker further increases risk. Human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease, is associated with an increased risk of cancers at the back of the tongue or on the tonsils. Most oral cancers occur in people age 55 or older, although HPV-related oral cancers tend to be diagnosed in younger people.

If you’re at risk for developing oral cancer, it’s strongly recommended that you do routine self-examinations at home between visits with your dentist. Early detection increases your chances for a positive outcome.

Signs to look for

It’s important to familiarize yourself with the potential symptoms of oral cancer, while keeping in mind that many of these symptoms can indicate far less serious concerns. There’s no need to worry should you discover one or more of these signs, but should they persist, see your dentist.

  • Ulcers (open sores)
  • Red spots or white patches
  • Thin grey or white plaques (abnormal patches of skin)
  • Lumps on the lips, tongue or neck
  • Bright red “velvety” patches
  • Sore throat and/or difficulty swallowing

How to do an oral self-exam

Follow these four steps to help detect signs of oral cancer.

1. Examine your neck and lymph nodes. Standing in front of a mirror, tilt your head back and check your neck for swelling or abnormal masses/growth. Bring your chin back into its normal position and feel the lymph nodes on your neck and under your chin to see if they’re inflamed.

2. Check your lips and gums. Wash your hands and feel both your upper and lower lips. Gently squeeze the lip as you move along, looking for bumps or swelling. Pull your lips away from your gums and look for red spots, ulcers or white patches.

If your gums are inflamed and bleeding at the base of your teeth, you may need to seek treatment for gum disease.

3. Inspect the roof of your mouth and tongue. Tilt your head back and examine the roof of your mouth for red or white spots or unusual growths.

Using a washcloth, pull on the tip of your tongue so that you can clearly see every surface. Look for ulcers and be sure to check both left and right sides. Press down on the back of your tongue with a popsicle stick or tongue depressor to see the part of your tongue entering the throat.

Push the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth with your finger to check the underside of your tongue and the floor of your mouth. Pay special attention to this area—it’s the most commonly affected by oral cancer.

4. Examine your cheeks by touch. Using your thumb on the inside and forefinger on the outside, examine your cheeks for masses or irregularities.

Next steps

If you discover a growth, make an appointment with your dentist or oral surgeon right away.

If you notice minor swelling or discoloration, check it daily and see a professional if the symptom persists for 7–14 days.