Oral cancer can affect any of the working parts of your mouth or oral cavity, which include the:
- tissue that lines lips and cheeks
- front two-thirds of the tongue (the back third of the tongue, or base, is considered part of the oropharynx, or throat)
- area of the mouth underneath the tongue, called the floor
- roof of the mouth
When should you worry about a bump, sore, or swelling in your mouth? Here’s what to look for.
The flat cells that cover the surfaces of your mouth, tongue, and lips are called squamous cells. The majority of mouth cancers begin in these cells. A patch on your tongue, gums, tonsils, or the lining of your mouth can signal trouble.
A white or red patch inside your mouth or on your lips may be a potential sign of squamous cell carcinoma.
There is a wide range in how oral cancer may look and feel. The skin may feel thicker or nodular, or there may be a persistent ulcer or erosion. What is important to note is the persistent nature of these abnormalities. Noncancerous lesions tend to resolve in a few weeks.
A mixture of red and white patches in your mouth, called erythroleukoplakia, is an abnormal cell growth that’s more likely to become cancerous. If red and white patches last more than two weeks, you should see your dentist. You may see these mouth abnormalities before you feel them. In the early stages, mouth cancer may cause no pain.
Bright red patches in your mouth that look and feel velvety are called erythroplakia. They are often precancerous.
In 75 to 90 percent of cases, erythroplakia are cancerous, so don’t ignore any vividly colored spots in your mouth. If you have erythroplakia, your dentist will take a biopsy of these cells.
A white or grayish patch inside your mouth or on your lips is called leukoplakia, or keratosis. An irritant like a rough tooth, broken denture, or tobacco can cause cell overgrowth and produce these patches.
The habit of chewing the inside of your cheek or lips can also lead to leukoplakia. Exposure to carcinogenic substances can also cause these patches to develop.
These patches signal that the tissue is abnormal and can become malignant. However, in most cases it will be benign. The patches may be rough and hard and difficult to scrape off. Leukoplakia generally develops slowly, over a period of weeks or months.
You may find erythroplakia anywhere in your mouth, but it occurs most often in the floor of the mouth underneath the tongue or on your gums behind your back teeth.
Check your mouth carefully once a month for any signs of abnormality. Use a magnifying mirror under bright light to get a clear view.
Pull your tongue out gently with clean fingers and inspect underneath. Look at the sides of your tongue and the insides of your cheeks, and examine your lips inside and out.
Know how to distinguish a canker sore from something more serious. A canker sore inside your mouth often burns, stings, or tingles before it’s visible. In the early stages, mouth cancer rarely causes any pain. Abnormal cell growth usually appears as flat patches.
A canker sore looks like an ulcer, usually with a depression in the center. The middle of the canker sore may appear white, gray, or yellow, and the edges are red.
Canker sores are often painful, but they aren’t malignant. This means that they don’t become cancerous. Canker sores usually heal within two weeks, so any sore, lump, or spot in your mouth that lasts longer needs a professional evaluation.
A regular dental checkup twice a year is an important cancer screening tool. These visits give your dentist the chance to detect any signs of oral cancer in the earliest stages. Prompt treatment reduces the likelihood that precancerous cells will become malignant.
You can also cut down your risk of developing mouth cancer by avoiding tobacco products, including “dip” or “chew” and cigarettes, which have all been connected to mouth cancer.