Given the destructive effects of oral cancer, detecting the disease in its early stages can be crucial to effective treatment. The motto "better safe than sorry" applies, especially if you know that you're in a high-risk category to begin with. Routine oral self exams and regular visits to the dentist can be invaluable in detecting early signs of mouth cancer.
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, the death rate associated with mouth cancer has been historically high because the cancer is routinely found in the late stages of its development. Many cases of mouth cancer aren't discovered until the disease has moved, or metastasized, to another location -- typically the lymphatic system in the neck. These cases of more advanced-stage mouth cancer require much more invasive treatment, and have a less optimistic prognosis.
A quick visual inspection can also reveal several precancerous conditions, such as white spots or patches on the mouth (leukoplakia), red spots or patches which are sometimes raised and bleed easily (erythroplakia) or a combination of both (erythroleukoplakia).
Other well-established signs of mouth cancer include persistent ear ache, abnormal lumps or swelling in the soft tissue of the cheek, neck or gums, loose teeth, painful swallowing, abnormal bleeding and difficulty moving the tongue or jaw. If you have dentures or any other dental apparatus, be mindful if they no longer fit correctly. Sudden and inexplicable weight loss is another warning sign.
A medical professional should inspect any condition such as a sore or discolored area of your mouth that doesn't heal within two weeks. To increase the odds of early detection, the American Cancer Society recommends that primary care doctors and dentists examine the mouth and throat during any routine cancer screenings or check-ups. If an abnormal area is discovered, the doctor or dentist might do a biopsy -- removal of a small tissue sample -- for further analysis.
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