Spotting the Warning Signs of Oral Cancer

Sep 01, 2022
 Spotting the Warning Signs of Oral Cancer
Oral cancers are fast-growing diseases that spell serious trouble for your oral and overall health. The good news is that with early detection, treatment is more effective. Here’s a look at the warning signs of oral cancer and how we can help.

More than 54,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral or oropharyngeal (the part of your throat at the back of your mouth) cancers every year, and about 25% of those cases result in death. Fortunately, catching oral cancer early means you have access to prompt, effective treatment and a better prognosis.

At our 12 locations in Nuremberg, Edwardsville, Shickshinny, Wilkes-Barre, Monroe Township, Sullivan Trail Fall, Freeland, and Hazelton, Pennsylvania, the dental team at Rural Health Corporation of Northeastern Pennsylvania offers oral cancer screenings to help catch cancer and other oral health issues early. 

Our practice also believes in the power of patient education. By understanding oral cancers and the early warning signs they bring, you can make sure any issues get addressed early and protect your oral health, your well-being, and your life for the long term. Here’s what you should know.    

What are oral cancers?

Oral cancers are cancers that start in your mouth (oral cavity) or in the middle part of your throat behind your mouth (oropharynx). They can affect your lips, gums, tongue, cheeks, soft palate, tonsils, salivary glands, the area under your tongue, and more. 

Many types of cells create the tissues that make up these different parts of your mouth and oropharynx. Each of these various cell types can develop into different types of oral cancer. Your prognosis and treatment depend on the type of oral cancer you have, as well as its stage (progression).

Who’s at risk for oral cancer?

Oral cancer can affect anyone. However, certain risk factors increase your chances of developing oral cancer. The two most common are: 

  • History of tobacco product use (cigarettes as well as chewing and smokeless tobacco) 
  • History of excessive alcohol use

People with a history of both alcohol and tobacco use have the highest oral cancer risk. In fact, if this describes you, your risk of getting oral cancer is about 30 times higher than the risk for people who don’t use tobacco or alcohol.

Drinking alcohol and using tobacco aren’t the only risk factors, however. Tens of thousands of people without a history of smoking and drinking develop oral cancer every year. Some of the associated risk factors include:

  • Age (most oral cancers develop in people over 55)
  • Sun exposure (linked to lip cancer)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being male (men get oral cancers at twice the rate of women)
  • Having certain inherited conditions (e.g., Fanconi anemia; dyskeratosis congenita)

Recently, researchers have linked a common virus — human papillomavirus (HPV) 16 — to certain oropharyngeal cancers. In fact, scientists believe HPV 16 causes about 70% of these cancers. Oropharyngeal cancers cases linked to HPV have risen dramatically over the past several decades, especially in younger people with no history or alcohol or tobacco use. 

What are the warning signs of oral cancer?

Your dental provider looks for signs of oral cancers, but you know your body better than anyone. And since oral cancer can affect anyone, it’s important for you to understand the warning signs.

The most common sign of oral cancer is a sore on your lip or in your mouth that doesn’t heal. Other signs of oral cancer include: 

  • Red or white patch on your tongue, gums, tongue, tonsils or other oral tissues
  • Lump(s) on your lip, mouth, neck, or throat
  • Feeling like your cheeks are thicker than normal
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Feeling like something is stuck in your throat
  • Voice or speech changes
  • Chronic hoarseness
  • Numbness in your mouth or tongue
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving your jaw or tongue
  • Pain or bleeding in your mouth
  • Ear and/or jaw pain
  • Loosening of your teeth
  • Persistent toothache
  • Finding your dentures won’t fit

Later stage oral cancer can also cause loss of appetite, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss. If you experience any of the above signs and they don’t resolve within 2 weeks, don’t wait to schedule an appointment at the Rural Health Corporation of Northeastern Pennsylvania.   

How can I get an oral cancer screening?

At the Rural Health Corporation of Northeastern Pennsylvania, our dental providers offer oral cancer screenings. This simple screening includes examining your oral tissues for signs of cancer. Keep in mind that not all mouth sores and issues affecting your oral cavity and oropharynx are cancer. 

If your dental provider finds any areas of concern, they may either biopsy the tissue for analysis or schedule a follow-up appointment to see if the issue resolves on its own. For clients without insurance, our practice offers a sliding fee schedule to ensure everyone gets the care they need.

To learn more about oral cancer or to schedule a screening, book an appointment online or over the phone at your nearest Rural Health Corporation of Northeastern Pennsylvania location. No car? No problem! Ask about our convenient transportation services.