Many of the following symptoms do not necessarily mean you have oral cancer. However, if you find any of these, you should contact your physician or dentist so they can diagnose and treat the areas of concern as soon as possible.
Symptoms of oral cancer include:
- Patches inside your mouth or on your lips:
- White patches are the most common and can become cancerous
- Mixed red and white patches are more likely than white patches to become malignant
- Red patches are brightly colored, smooth areas that often become cancerous
- A sore on your lip or in your mouth that doesn't heal
- Bleeding in your mouth
- Loose teeth
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- Difficulty wearing dentures
- A lump in your neck
- An earache that doesn't go away
- Numbness of lower lip and chin
If you have symptoms that suggest oral cancer, your doctor or dentist will check your mouth and throat for red or white patches, lumps, swelling, or other problems. A physical exam includes looking carefully at the roof of your mouth, back of your throat, and insides of your cheeks and lips. The floor of your mouth and lymph nodes in your neck will also be checked.
The removal of a small piece of tissue to look for cancer cells is called a biopsy. Usually, a biopsy is done with local anesthesia. A biopsy is the only sure way to know if the abnormal area is cancer.
A few methods that are also used in the oral cancer diagnosis process are as follows:
- X-rays: An X-ray of your entire mouth can show whether cancer has spread to the jaw. Images of your chest and lungs can show whether cancer has spread to these areas.
- CT scan: An X-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of your body. You may receive an injection of dye. Tumors in your mouth, throat, neck, lungs, or elsewhere in the body can show up on the CT scan.
- MRI: A powerful magnet linked to a computer is used to make detailed pictures of your body. An MRI can show whether oral cancer has spread.
- Endoscopy: The doctor uses a thin, lighted tube (endoscope) to check your throat, windpipe, and lungs.
- PET scan: You receive an injection of a small amount of radioactive sugar. The radioactive sugar gives off signals that the PET scanner picks up. The PET scanner makes a picture of the places in your body where the sugar is being taken up. Cancer cells show up brighter in the picture because they take up sugar faster than normal cells do. A PET scan shows whether oral cancer may have spread.