Oral cancer may not get as much news coverage or media attention as other types of cancer, but it can still be deadly. In fact, about 54,000 Americans will be diagnosed with mouth and throat cancers this year, and nearly 10,000 people will die from these cancers — about one person per hour.
What’s more, The Oral Cancer Foundation says that of those 54,000 people who are diagnosed this year, only about half will survive for five or more years. One reason the mortality rate is so high is because many of these cancers aren’t discovered until they’re in their later stages.
At Pacific Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery Center, in Oakland and San Francisco, California, Brandon Kang, DDS, diagnoses and treats oral cancers, performing regular screenings to look for cancer in its earliest — and most treatable — stages. Here’s what he wants his patients to know about oral cancer, including what signs and symptoms to look for.
Oral cancer: Signs and symptoms
Oral cancer causes very subtle symptoms in its early stages. As the cancer progresses, you might notice symptoms like:
- Lip or mouth sores that don’t heal
- A white or red patch inside your mouth or on your tongue
- Lump or thickening on your lips or cheek
- Problems moving your jaw or tongue
- Numbness in your tongue, lip, or mouth
- Tooth or mouth pain
- Loose teeth or ill-fitting dentures
- Swelling or pain in your jaw
- Pain in your ear
When cancer happens in your throat, it’s called pharyngeal cancer (or oropharyngeal cancer). Symptoms of throat cancer include:
- Sore throat that doesn’t go away
- Hoarseness or other voice changes
- Problems swallowing
- Pain, swelling, or lump in your throat or neck
While these symptoms can be caused by cancer, they can be caused by other issues too. If you have any of these symptoms — especially if they last two or more weeks — it’s important to call our office to determine the next step in treatment.
The importance of oral cancer screening
Many people think you can only have oral cancer if you smoke or use tobacco, but that’s not true. While tobacco use increases your risk of oral cancers, you can have cancer in your mouth or throat even if you’ve never used any tobacco product — ever.
Routine oral cancer screenings are important for everyone, especially because this type of cancer can be very hard to detect in its early stages. Dr. Kang performs oral cancer screenings during your regular dental exam visits, as well as performing evaluations for patients who come in with specific symptoms.
During an oral cancer screening, Dr. Kang performs an oral exam of your mouth, tongue, lips, and throat. He gently palpates your neck and under-chin area, and he may palpate your lips or cheeks too.
If he spots an unusual patch of tissue in your mouth or throat, he may take a tiny sample (a biopsy) so it can be evaluated under a microscope. Biopsies use a brush or a tiny tool to remove a small section of tissue for examination.
Catch cancer early
Many oral cancers can be successfully treated via simple excision procedures, but like any cancer, early diagnosis is key. Although you might be tempted to skip your next regular dental visit, remember: Skipping dental checkups means you’re also skipping your oral cancer screening.
Oral cancer screening takes just a few minutes, but it could save your life. To learn more about oral cancer screening at our offices or to schedule a visit with Dr. Kang, book an appointment online or over the phone today.