Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson

Know the symptoms of oral cancer

6/22/2023 by Jon Ebbert, M.D.


According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 54,540 people will be diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2023 in the United States, and 11,580 people will die from the disease. Most cases of oral cancer are linked to cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol use and the human papillomavirus. 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. 

If you are at high risk for oral cancer, you should have frequent checks with an oral health professional or medical clinic provider. 

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 the Division of Community Internal Medicine, Geriatrics and Palliative Care in Rochester, Minnesota. He is the medical director of Mayo Clinic's Nicotine Dependence Center and chair of Community Internal Medicine's Division of Telehealth, where he provides virtual visit care across Southeast Minnesota.