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Oral Cancer: Symptoms & the Importance of Screenings

April 22, 2016 9:59 AM with Dr. Mihir Bhayani

It’s easy to ignore a lump, hoarseness or a sore throat; they aren’t always serious. At the same time, not monitoring these symptoms can lead you to miss something major; they can indicate oral cancers of the head and neck, which can appear on the throat, glands, lips, mouth, larynx and the sinuses. You can learn more about the potential signs and symptoms of oral cancers in our chat. Learn about diagnosis and treatment for different types of oral cancer and ways to decrease your potential risk.


Kathryn (Moderator) - 10:00 AM:
Our oral cancer chat is now open. You can submit questions at time during the chat.

Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore) - 10:00 AM:
Hello everyone. I am excited to participate in this live discussion on oral cancer. Oral cancer is the 8th most common cancer and can have significant impact on quality of life for those affected. Good oral care and screenings are important first steps in treating these cancers.

  Christopher (Des Plaines, IL) - 10:01 AM:
Occasionally, I can feel a little bump (kind of like a pimple that won’t pop) on the back of my neck or by my ear. It always goes away – could this be an early indication of cancer?
Mihir Bhayani
Hi Christopher. As long as the bump is not persistent and does not cause pain, it is unlikely to be a concern. However, if it does not go away or you are concerned, I would advise that you see your doctor for an evaluation.

  Irma (Naperville, IL) - 10:05 AM:
Does dry mouth have anything to do with oral cancer? I feel like I have to drink tons of water every day just to feel even somewhat hydrated.
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Dry mouth does not specifically cause oral cancer. Dry mouth can lead to irritations in the mouth, so it is important to stay hydrated. If the dry mouth is ongoing, then I would recommend an evaluation by your doctor for possible underlying causes of the dry mouth.

  Ron (Waukegan, IL) - 10:07 AM:
How can you tell the difference between a regular sore throat and a sore throat as a symptom of cancer?
Mihir Bhayani
Good question. The symptoms of a "routine" sore throat are similar to the presentation of many cancers of the throat. If the sore throat is persistent (lasting longer than 2 weeks) or associated with difficulty swallowing or breathing, your doctor should evaluate you.

  Terry (Palatine, IL) - 10:13 AM:
What happens during a screening? Is it painful?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
An oral screening is an exam of the oral cavity. A medical professional examines the lining of your mouth and throat. This is done with a tongue depressor and a gloved finger to assess for any lesions. It is not painful.

  Sara (Elgin, IL) - 10:16 AM:
Other than screenings, how do doctors check for oral cancer? Are there any ways to predict the risk of getting it?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
At this time, other than routine oral screenings, there is no specific test for oral cancer. Having a good routine of seeing your dentist every 6 months is the best way to assess for any abnormal lesions in your mouth or throat. Risk factors for oral cancer are smoking and tobacco use. Alcohol and HPV are also known to cause oral/throat cancers.

  Mary (Glenview, IL) - 10:19 AM:
Does bad dental hygiene (not brushing teeth or flossing) put you at more risk for head/neck cancers?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Yes. Poor oral hygiene can predispose individuals to develop oral cancers. This is why it is important to obtain a good dental evaluation with a full mouth evaluation every 6 months

  Patricia (Evanston, IL) - 10:24 AM:
Does diet affect the risk of cancer? I’ve heard some teas and hot foods can increase the chances of something developing.
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Diet does have an impact on your cancer risk. Certain foods are worse than others but only a risk if consumed in large quantities. However, if you eat in moderation, this risk can be reduced.

  John (Chicago, IL) - 10:29 AM:
Sometimes when I get stressed out, I get canker sores on my lower lip or gums. Are these non-cancerous?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Recurrent aphthous ulcers are a common non-cancerous condition. They associated with stress. The best treatment is to keep the ulcer clean with a mouth rinse to allow it to heal. If the ulcers persist past 2 weeks, you should have them evaluated.

  Judy (Skokie, IL) - 10:32 AM:
Are there any kinds of self-exams that I can do to make sure nothing is appearing?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
When you brush and floss your teeth, do it in the mirror so you can see your mouth. If anything looks different, have it looked at by your doctor.

  Jim (Northbrook, IL) - 10:35 AM:
Some of my family members who were heavy smokers were diagnosed with mouth cancer. Does that mean I’m at a greater risk too, even if I don’t smoke?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Secondhand smoke exposure has been linked to development of oral cancers. In addition, certain oral cancers do have a genetic component. As long as you have good oral care and get regular dental checks, you are doing taking right steps for preventative care.

  Callie (Evanston, IL) - 10:39 AM:
I know the HPV virus can be related to STDs, but heard it can also be a cause for oral cancer – is this true? Does the HPV vaccine protect against this?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Cancers of the tonsil and base of the tongue are related to HPV (about 50% of cases now). The HPV vaccine is thought to protect against these specific types of cancer.

  Daniel (Waukegan, IL) - 10:43 AM:
Are people who have had their tonsils removed more likely to develop some kind of oral cancer? Are they at all related?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Tonsillectomy and risk of oral cancer are not related.

  Jacob (Skokie, IL) - 10:48 AM:
What is the relationship between chewing tobacco and cancer on the tongue/in the mouth?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Chewing tobacco poses a significant risk to the development of oral cancer. In addition to oral cancer risk, chewing tobacco can also cause dental decay and tooth loss.

  Carol (Evanston, IL) - 10:50 AM:
If I’ve had previous dental surgery (root canal), could this mean I’m at a higher risk for developing cancer in my mouth or jaw?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
As long as the area has healed, there is a low risk for developing oral cancer.

  Sandy (Arlington Heights, IL) - 10:54 AM:
I’ve had small growths in my thyroid before, but they were always non-cancerous. Does this mean I’m at risk for cancer in the future?
Mihir Bhayani (NorthShore)
Thyroid nodules are very common in the population. Only 5% of thyroid nodules put you at risk for cancer. Routine surveillance by your doctor is sufficient to assess your risk.

Kathryn (Moderator) - 11:00 AM:
This will be the end of our chat. Thank you for your questions. If you would like to find out more information on oral cancer, or would like to make an appointment with a specialist like Dr. Bhayani, you can contact the Kellogg Cancer Center. For a free oral screening, join us this Sunday in Gurnee - you can find out more information in the sidebar.

This chat has ended.

Thank you very much for your participation.