Symptoms and Treatments of Oral Cancer

Medically reviewed by Monica Bien, PA-C on August 8, 2016Written by Saher V., MD on August 8, 2016
oral cancer symptoms

Oral cancer often shows up as a new or persistent sore in the mouth. This type of cancer can include malignant growths of the lips, cheeks, tongue, floor of the mouth, hard and soft palate, and tonsils.

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, men are twice as likely to be diagnosed with oral cancer than women. It’s also rare for people under the age of 40 to have oral cancer. Dentists are often the first healthcare professional to notice or diagnose this type of cancer.

Symptoms of oral cancer

The earliest symptoms of oral cancer may be confused with other benign issues, such as a toothache or cavity. Other common symptoms of oral cancer include:

  • swelling, bumps, crusts, or eroded areas on the gums, lips, or inside the mouth
  • unexplained bleeding
  • unexplained weight loss
  • smooth red, white, or dotted patches in the mouth
  • numbness of the neck, mouth, or face
  • a feeling that something is stuck in the back of the throat
  • dryness in the throat or a prolonged sore throat
  • change in voice
  • ear pain
  • trouble biting, gulping, talking, or moving the tongue or jaw
  • change in the way your dentures or teeth fit together

If you have one or more of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, you should see a dentist or medical specialist for an oral exam. Often, these symptoms don’t indicate oral cancer. But it’s important to have these signs checked to ensure you get an early and accurate diagnosis, especially if it’s cancer.

Treatment options for oral cancer

There are different treatment options for oral cancer. The kind of treatment your healthcare provider recommends will depend on many factors, including the type and location of the cancer and how far it has progressed.

The goal of early stage treatment is usually to cure it. In later stages, the goal may be to control further growth and help ease any symptoms like pain or difficulty eating, speaking, or swallowing.

The three most common treatments for oral cancer are radiotherapy, surgery, and chemotherapy.

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy directs high-vitality beams of radiation at the cancerous tissue. The goal of radiation is to kill the cancer cells and prevent further growth or spread.

Two kinds of radiotherapy are used for oral cancer:

  • External beam radiotherapy directs the radiation beam from a machine outside the body to the affected area. This is the most common technique for most types of oral cancer.
  • Internal radiotherapy, also known as brachytherapy, involves putting little radioactive wires or beads beside the cancer area for a period and then removing them.

Surgery

The most widely recognized treatment for oral cancer is surgery. The operation might remove the cancer and a portion of surrounding tissue.

In some cases, when the cancer is very advanced, surgery is done to help ease the symptoms related to the cancerous growth. This is known as palliative surgery. The operations are all done while you are sleeping under a general analgesic.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses medicines that kill cancer cells, or help prevent them from growing back. Chemotherapy is often used in conjunction with surgery or radiotherapy but in some cases is the sole treatment.

Photodynamic therapy

Photodynamic therapy uses special photosensitizing drugs along with light to kill cancer cells. The drugs are absorbed by the cancer cells and then activated by the light. It’s not widely used, but there are ongoing trials testing it in pre-cancerous lesions. This type of therapy is best used for cancers that are small, localized, and near the surface of the skin.

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