Employee & Community Health

Know the symptoms of oral cancer

4/17/2017 by Dr. Jon Ebbert

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Each year about 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with oral cancer; only one-half of them will be alive in five years. 

Most cases of oral cancer are linked to cigarette smoking and heavy alcohol use. Tobacco use plus alcohol poses a much greater risk than using either substance alone. Smokeless tobacco, a form of tobacco placed into the mouth and not burned, also can significantly increase the risk for oral cancer. 

A variety of symptoms may indicate oral cancer including: 

  • Lump, sore or white or red patch in the mouth, lip or throat
  • Feeling like something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or moving the tongue
  • Numbness in the tongue or other areas of the mouth
  • Jaw swelling
  • Ear pain

These symptoms are not always cancer, but it's important to have them checked out early because cancer caught earlier is easier to treat. A person who has these symptoms for more than two weeks should see a dentist or clinician for an oral examination. 

One way to lower your chance for oral cancer is to quit tobacco use completely. Effective treatments for helping you stop smoking include nicotine replacement therapy (gum, patch, lozenge, inhaler, nasal spray), as well as two prescription medications, varenicline and bupropion. For quitting the use of smokeless tobacco, nicotine replacement therapy (lozenge) and varenicline have proven effective. 

Jon Ebbert, MD, is a physician in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Primary Care Internal Medicine (PCIM). He also works with Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center in Rochester.