Mouth cancer: signs, symptoms & prevention

Siski Green / 28 October 2013

Early diagnosis can mean the difference between a serious health problem and a fatal one, so being aware of the initial signs of mouth cancer is key.

For many of the people who are told they have mouth cancer each year, earlier diagnosis would have saved their lives. “The survival for stage 1 (earliest form) is 90% whereas for stage 4 (most advanced) less than 20% of patients survive,” says Dr. Jean-Pierre Jeannon, consultant head and neck surgeon at London Bridge Hospital. With this in mind, it is vital that those exhibiting symptoms seek help as soon as possible.

Spot the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer

As with most cancers, early diagnosis can mean the difference between a serious health problem and a fatal one, so being aware of the initial signs of mouth cancer is key.

Ulcer or lump in the mouth that doesn’t go away. Unlike a normal ulcer, however, this one persists in the same location. Ulcers that come and go and are experienced in different parts of the mouth are not the same. “A cancerous ulcer is often painless and stays in the same place,” says Jeannon.

Neck lump. A lump that occurs as a result of a swollen lymph node may be a sign of cancer, too.

Red or white patch in the mouth. If you notice a discoloured patch like this in your mouth and it doesn’t go away, it could also be a sign of early cancer.

Mouth cancer: who’s at risk?

Men are three times more likely to get mouth cancer and it also is more common in the older generation. But regardless of those two factors the two groups of people most at risk are smokers and heavy drinkers. 

“Smoking and drinking to excess increase your chances of getting mouth cancer by 30 times as much, yet so many social smokers often light up while having a drink,” says Dr Nigel Carter OBE, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation.

A factor that many people also may not consider is the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can be transmitted via oral sex – it also increases a person’s risk of mouth cancer.

How to prevent mouth cancer

Aside from giving up smoking and drinking only moderately or less, you should have regular dental check-ups as it’s often at these check-ups that an anomaly is noticed. Brushing your teeth regularly and flossing will also help as it might raise your awareness of something that’s not right in your mouth such as an ulcer, for example.

What is the diagnosis for mouth cancer?

“Most mouth cancers are the same type and arise from the skin lining inside of the mouth,” says Jeannon. “These are termed squamous cell carcinomas. They can affect any part of the mouth: lip, tongue or floor of mouth. Mouth cancer tends to be an aggressive form so the earlier the cancer is detected, the better the outcome.”

Treating mouth cancer

An operation to remove the tumour is required, and you may or may not need radiotherapy too. The earlier your cancer is diagnosed the more successful your treatment is likely to be.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.