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Oral cancer is the name given to cancers that occur in the lips, tongue, gums, lining of the cheeks, roof or floor of the mouth, salivary glands, or sometimes even the upper throat. The main causes of oral cancer are alcohol and tobacco use, an HPV infection, or dietary deficiencies. It is grouped with other head and neck cancers and often has a similar treatment plan.

According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, oral cancers that are discovered early have an 80-90% chance of successful treatment. Unfortunately, however, since many mouth cancers are not diagnosed or treated until they are more developed, the survival rate 5 years after the original diagnosis is roughly 57%. In other words, it’s highly treatable but can be really serious if it goes untreated. That being said, oral cancers are typically discoverable and diagnosable in their early stages, so we want to help you protect yourself by recognizing potential symptoms and partnering with your dentist in getting consistent screenings for oral cancer.

What are the common symptoms of oral cancer?

Well, every person’s body is different, so no single list is exhaustive, but here are some of the most common early indicators of oral cancers:

  • A sore in the mouth that does not heal.
  • A lump or thickening in the oral cavity.
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
  • Bleeding, pain, or numbness in the mouth.
  • A lump (usually painless) near the ear, cheek, jaw, or lip, or inside the mouth.
  • Trouble swallowing or opening the mouth widely.
  • Numbness or weakness in the face.
  • Pain in the face that does not go away.

Any of these symptoms could have other causes besides cancer, but if you experience any of the above issues for longer than two weeks, it’s good to let your dentist know. Next, to your own awareness and vigilance, the second-best way to detect oral cancer early is consistent dental checkups. Why? Because even though they may not say anything specifically, your dentist is screening your mouth and throat for signs of oral cancer while cleaning your teeth and tending to other facets of your oral health. Dentists and other oral healthcare professionals are part of your first line of defense when it comes to oral cancer.

When it comes to oral cancer, the best things you can do are 1) practice awareness on your own and 2) be consistent with dental checkups!