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While it doesn’t fall in the top ten most common types of cancer, oral cancer affects an estimated 37,000 people every year. Also known as mouth cancer, oral cancer can develop as a result of several everyday habits ranging from smoking to poor dental hygiene practices. Most importantly, oral cancer can be life-threatening when it is not found early.

What Are the Signs of Oral Cancer?

Your mouth is lined with a layer of skin (mucosa) that, when healthy, is coral pink and smooth. Any difference in appearance may be a sign of a problematic condition like cancer. There are many signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for when it comes to oral cancer. Patients should pay special attention to unusual symptoms affecting their lips or the tissues in their mouth, such as:

  • Red patches (erythroplasia)
  • White spots (leukoplakia)
  • Sores that do not heal
  • A lump or growth inside your mouth
  • Bleeding sores
  • Thickening of the skin in the mouth
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Unexplained pain

These symptoms may develop in any part of your mouth, including the lips, cheeks, hard or soft palate, gum tissue, tongue, face, or neck.

Other symptoms of mouth cancer affecting your face and neck include:

  • A mass or lump in the neck
  • Chronic sore or dry throat
  • Voice hoarseness
  • Ear pain

Keep in mind that not every patient with oral cancer develops facial or neck pain. Sometimes, the symptoms mentioned above are the primary signals that something is wrong. Contact your dentist or doctor right away should you experience any abnormal symptoms.

Another aspect of oral cancer is tongue cancer. While tongue cancer is relatively rare (usually affecting under 20,000 Americans per year), it is still cause for concern. Tongue cancer falls into two categories: oral tongue cancer, which affects the front two-thirds of your tongue, and oropharyngeal tongue cancer, which affects the base of your tongue, located in the back of your mouth and extending down your throat.

Some of the first signs of tongue cancer are often red or white spots, a lump, or a persistent sore on the side of your tongue. Other signs and symptoms of tongue cancer are similar to those of mouth cancer, but may also include:

  • Mouth or tongue numbness
  • Jaw swelling
  • Trouble moving your jaw or tongue

If you experience any of these symptoms, schedule an appointment with your doctor or dentist as soon as possible for an evaluation.

Causes of Oral Cancer

While there are several potential causes of oral cancer, some of the most common include:

  • Tobacco and alcohol use
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Chronic infections
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Uneven or rough surfaces on the teeth
  • Ill-fitting dentures
  • Prolonged exposure to UV rays
  • HPV infection

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do You Evaluate Oral Cancer?

Dr. Salamati performs an oral cancer evaluation as a part of your bi-yearly dental check-up. This will include an examination of the gums, teeth, tongue, floor of the mouth, uvula, lips, and palate.

A biopsy may be recommended if there is any suspicious coloration or sores in the mouth that have no other apparent cause. The results of the biopsy will reveal whether the lesion is oral cancer or a non-cancerous mouth sore.

Oral Biopsy Procedure

A biopsy takes a diagnostic sample of the questionable tissue. There are two ways to perform this evaluation. An incisional biopsy removes a small portion of the tissue, whereas an excisional biopsy removes all the abnormal tissue.

A small piece of the affected tissue is removed and carefully preserved for testing. Depending on the size of the sample taken from your mouth, you may require stitches after the biopsy procedure.

This procedure can be completed in under 15 minutes and only requires local anesthesia to numb the area.

If your dentist finds suspicious cells on your tongue, they typically perform a tongue biopsy. A tongue biopsy can be done in several ways, including an incisional or punch biopsy. In some cases, local anesthesia can be used, but tongue biopsies performed on the base of the tongue may require general anesthesia.

What Can I Expect From My Oral Biopsy Recovery?

Since your biopsy is performed using local or general anesthesia, you won’t experience any pain during or immediately following the procedure. Some patients experience some soreness and discomfort once the numbness dissipates, which can be alleviated with over-the-counter medication like TYLENOL® or ibuprofen.

Most patients can return to work and their usual activities immediately without restriction. If your biopsy required stitches, you won’t need to schedule a follow-up appointment to remove them, as they will dissolve on their own within two weeks.

When Will I Learn the Results of My Oral Biopsy?

The oral biopsy sample taken by your dentist will be sent to the laboratory, where an oral pathologist carefully evaluates the tissue. The biopsy results typically come back within two to three days of the procedure, and once the pathology report is received, you will be notified of the diagnosis. At that time, a follow-up appointment will likely be scheduled to discuss the oral or tongue biopsy results with you and develop a treatment plan, should one be necessary.

How Can I Protect Myself From Oral Cancer?

Regardless of your biopsy results, we recommend that all patients perform monthly self-examinations to identify any new abnormalities. Another easy way to protect yourself is to practice good daily dental hygiene and visit your dentist twice yearly for a check-up and cleaning. Dentists are trained to look for any abnormalities in your mouth that signal cancer or other preventable dental issues and can address any concerns you may have about the health of your mouth or tongue. Oral cancer is very treatable, and the survival rate of oral cancer is very high when it is detected early. Men and women should be aware of any unexplainable lumps or sores and seek prompt medical attention if they discover anything that may cause concern.