It’s easy to take your mouth for granted. You use it every single day to talk, laugh, and eat, and it can perform those functions without you having to really provide any consideration. The mouth (and oral cavity in general) comprises numerous different structures, each made up of different cells and tissues. It’s more complex than you think, and with that complexity comes the potential for health problems.
One of the most prominent problems that your mouth might suffer is oral cancer. Cancers affecting the oral cavity and pharynx reportedly account for about 3 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States annually. Left untreated, oral cancer can be potentially fatal, but the good news is that you can screen yourself for oral cancer. Learn more about self oral cancer screening below.
What Is Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer, which includes oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer, refers to any cancer that originates in any of the cells in the mouth or throat. Cancer in general is characterized by the uncontrolled and abnormal growth of cells. As these cells grow, they may form into lumps or masses known as tumors. Continued growth can take valuable oxygen and nutrients from essential tissues or even cut off blood flow to organs, resulting in severe health effects. Growths can potentially break away and travel via the bloodstream to far parts of the body in a process known as metastasis.
Oral cancer affects any part of the oral cavity or oropharynx. The oral cavity includes:
- Your lips
- The inside of your lips and cheeks
- Your teeth and gums
- The front two-thirds of your tongue
- Your hard palate (roof of your mouth)
- The area under your tongue
- The fleshy area behind your wisdom teeth
The oropharynx refers to the middle part of your throat just behind your oral cavity. This region includes:
- Your tonsils
- The back third of your tongue
- Your soft palate (the back of the roof of your mouth)
- The sides and back walls of your tongue
Your oral cavity and oropharynx play roles in everything from breathing to eating to talking. Both regions also feature salivary glands that create saliva, which keeps the area moist and supports the breakdown of food. As you can imagine, any interference in these functions can result in some severe problems.
Oral cancer is categorized based on the type of cells affected. While your oral cavity and pharynx do have several different cells, nearly all cases of oral cancer are squamous cell carcinomas. These cancers start in the cells that form the lining of your mouth and throat. Other types of oral cancer may affect the salivary glands or the lymph tissue in your tonsils or the base of your tongue.
Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cancer
Symptoms of oral cancer will vary from person to person. If you have oral cancer, you may exhibit one or several of these symptoms:
- General pain in your mouth that persists
- A blister, lesion, or sore on your lips or mouth that doesn’t heal, even with treatment
- A noticeable lump or sudden thickening in your cheeks, lips, or mouth
- A persistent sore throat
- White or red patches that appear on your lips, gums, tonsils, tongue, or inner lining of your mouth
- Difficulties swallowing or chewing
- Difficulties moving your jaw or tongue
- Swollen, painful jaw
- Sudden numbness in your tongue, lips, or mouth
- Teeth that feel loose or painful
- Dentures that feel uncomfortable or begin to fit improperly
- A noticeable lump in your neck or in the back of your throat
- Changes to your voice
- Sudden unintended weight loss
- Pain in your ears
Individually, these signs can be easily attributed to other health conditions that are minor or otherwise easy to ignore. Some of these symptoms may also point to different types of cancer. If you experience any of the above symptoms, you should consult your doctor.
Screening Yourself for Oral Cancer
Early detection for any cancer is the best way to ensure a positive outcome. The earlier you get diagnosed, the earlier you can receive treatment and prevent the growth and spread of the cancer.
The good news about oral cancer is that you can screen yourself at home. The oral self examination process takes just five minutes, and you can perform it easily after brushing your teeth. All you need is a clean mirror, a solid source of light, and freshly washed fingers. If you have any trouble, it may also be a good idea to get a friend to help.
At each step, you essentially want to look for lumps, patches that look red or white, any lesions that don’t seem to heal, changes in color, and anything else that appears strange or abnormal. Be sure to know the features of oral cancer as some features are similar to those of a canker sore. Knowing the difference between oral cancer vs canker sore is important for oral self examination.
Here’s how to screen yourself for oral cancer:
- Start by looking at your face straight on in the mirror. Look for any lumps or swelling that you haven’t noticed before. Check your skin for any changes in the size or color of moles or sores. Turn your head side to side, which stretches your skin taut and can help to make lumps easier to see.
- Using your fingers, gently press around your jaw and the muscles at the sides of your neck. Note any tender spots or areas that feel swollen.
- Use your fingers to feel around the inside of your mouth. Look at the inside of your bottom and upper lip, paying attention to any sores, lesions, or changes in color or texture. Feel for any lumps or growths.
- Check the insides of your cheeks for any red or white patches. Using your thumb and index finger, squeeze and roll your cheeks, checking for any bumps and tender spots.
- Run your fingers on the inside and outside of your gums to feel for any bumps and abnormalities.
- Tilt your head back and run a finger along the roof of your mouth. Feel for any bumps or lumps. If possible, try to look for any patches or discoloration.
- Check every part of your tongue. Use your fingers to feel for lumps or swollen spots. Don’t forget the soft areas under your tongue.
Along with active screening, if you notice any irregular symptoms associated with oral cancer, you may want to get diagnosed by a doctor.
Self-screening procedures for oral cancer may make all the difference to you and your oral health. If you do notice any abnormalities, like an abnormal lump or bump on your mouth or lip, during your self-screening, consult your doctor as soon as possible to receive an official diagnosis. The sooner you are diagnosed, the sooner you can receive treatment. You can also explore the different treatment options available at Immunity Therapy Center.
- CDC. Trends in Incidence of Cancers of the Oral Cavity and Pharynx — United States 2007–2016. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915a1.htm
- Cancer.org. What Are Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer/about/what-is-oral-cavity-cancer.html
- Mouth Cancer Foundation. Self examination. https://www.mouthcancerfoundation.org/self-examination/
- THANC Foundation. Self-Screening for Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer in 7 Steps. https://thancfoundation.org/self-screening-for-oral-and-oropharyngeal-cancer-in-7-steps/
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.