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  • Writer's pictureDr Donna Hill

Spotting the early signs of mouth cancer

Spotting the early signs of mouth cancer

Mouth cancer is one of the most treatable cancers however this is only if it is caught early. This article is dedicated to the early warning signs of oral cancer, what you can do at home and how it can be spotted.

What is mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer is when a tumour develops somewhere within the oral cavity and on the oral tissues, this could be on the inside of your cheeks, on your tongue, the roof of your mouth your gums or your lips.

Mouth cancer has a higher proportion of deaths than breast cancer, cervical cancer or skin melanoma with a mortality rate of just over 50%. However the biggest factor in this is detection, people tend to have routine screening for breast and cervical cancer and they can see their skin and report concerns quickly.

Mouth cancer can often progress unnoticed and unless you regularly check your own mouth and also have a routine oral cancer screening at the dentist it is likely to go unnoticed until it has developed further.

What do the early stages of mouth cancer look like

When you look for mouth cancer you should check your tongue, the roof of your mouth, your lips and inside of your cheeks initially.

Look for red, white or dark coloured patches, also gently feel for any kind of protrusion or raised area. Make sure you lift your tongue towards the top of your mouth and then move it left and right to look underneath.

Then examine your cheeks manually, gently squeeze your cheeks between your thumb and index finger very gently, this is one of the best ways to detect any lumps, bumps or slight swelling.

After that, check your neck area, run your fingers gently along the side of your neck feeling for any lumps and bumps for anything out of the ordinary. Note any slight tenderness or swelling.

Oral cancer is usually painless so don’t expect to feel sharp pain.

Oropharangeal cancer

Oral cancer further towards the back of the throat or soft palate may be labelled as oropharangeal cancer, this may be difficult to detect visually but common symptoms may include a lump in the neck, difficulty swallowing or persistent sore throat.

How to prevent early signs of oral cancer?

a common cause of all cancer is the human papilloma virus (HPV) it affects the skin and mucosal cells in the body. Whilst different human papilloma viruses infect different parts of the body studies have been shown that people who are infected with HPV are 32 times more likely to develop oral or throat cancers.

This makes HPV a greater cause of mouth cancer than smoking and drinking!

There are a couple of forms of HPV which are sexually transmitted and pose a serious health risk. They cause tissue growths which are usually flat and almost invisible, these are known as dysplasia. The growth in themselves are not cancer but they may be a sign of tissue change prior to cancer developing. Dysplasia can be detected on the female cervix through a smear test and the most dangerous HPV viruses are transmitted through sexual contact and known to cause up to 95% of cervical cancers. There are now known links between these 2 HPV viruses and oral cancer.

What is the difference between mouth cancer and oral cancer?

Generally speaking mouth cancer and oral cancer are different names for the same thing.

How to prevent oral cancer?

Approximately half of all cancers can be prevented by good diet and healthy living, the primary risk factors which increase your chances of developing mouth cancer are as follows:

  • Tobacco use. The use of tobacco has been widely documented and is well known to cause a variety of cancers.

  • Avoid or limit alcohol use. Excessive amounts of alcohol are also known  to increase the chances of cancer developing, particularly oral cancer due to the length of time that alcohol is in contact with the mucosal tissues.

  • Eat healthy food. Antioxidants have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer developing, maintaining a healthy diet rich in these nutrients can help keep you fit and healthy.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Cancer research UK has shown that one in 20 cancers are caused by people being overweight. It is suggested that obesity stimulates the inflammatory response which can promote cancer development. It also has an impact on the hormones and endocrine functions which may also contribute to the growth of cancer cells.

  • Exercise moderately most days.  This keeps your internal systems working effectively including blood and hormone levels.

  • Avoid casual sex. Increasing the number of sexual partners or choosing partners with several prior partners increases risk. Reduce your risk by using condoms & barriers during oral sex.

How to detect mouth cancer?

Examining your tongue, inside of your cheeks, floor of your mouth, lips, roof of the mouth and gums is one of the best ways to routinely detect mouth cancer at home.

Look in a mirror and stick out your tongue, ensure you look for any unusual lumps or obvious changes in colour, particularly those which don’t disappear. Pay particular attention to ulcers which you have been unable to get rid of.

A persistent cough or hoarseness of the voice could also be a sign of mouth cancer further down towards the back of your mouth.

When you visit the dentist they will also undertake a routine mouth cancer screening, this should form part of your 6 monthly health check. If your dentist doesn’t say explicitly that they have carried out a mouth cancer screening then make sure you ask. Dentists are trained on the anatomy of the mouth and to spot the early warning signs, they can then refer you for further examination and more detailed detection processes.

If in doubt, check it out!

Is oral cancer curable?

Early detection is absolutely key with oral cancer, if you’re not having regular oral cancer screening this can mean oral cancer goes undetected, this then means that once it becomes more noticeable it may have likely spread to the lymph nodes of the neck, thereby reducing survival rates significantly.

There are typically 3 primary ways to treat oral cancer:

  1. Surgically. This is often used in the early stages to remove the tumour and any affected lymph nodes. Any surrounding tissue may also be removed to prevent recurrence.

  2. Radiotherapy. Targeted treatment with radiation, usually twice per day for 5 days per week for around 6 weeks is also often used. If cancer is in more advanced stages then radiotherapy is often combined with chemotherapy.

  3. Chemotherapy. This is the drug treatment for cancer, it is usually given as an outpatient treatment without the need to stay in hospital, although this depends upon your reaction to the drug and your specific dose.



After qualifying in 1992 in Birmingham, Donna moved to Cornwall then helped to set up Trinity Dental Centre in 2000, with the aim of providing kind and gentle dental care. Donna's interest is in the cosmetic field and she frequently updates her knowledge in this area. Outside of work she likes to read and to cook. She is married to Rodney and they have two sons. View all posts by Dr Donna Hill .


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