Don’t ignore that mouth sore

It felt like a canker sore on the inside of your cheek that just wouldn’t heal, but you really weren’t worried. Fortunately, during a routine dental visit, your dentist suspected something more serious and recommended you see a head and neck oncologist to rule out or confirm oral cancer.

Washington University physician Jose Zevallos, MD, MPH, head and neck oncologist and surgeon explains, “Sores in the mouth, on the tongue or cheek that don’t disappear after two or three weeks warrant a closer look. A cold sore would be expected to come and go. But a white or red patch, or lesion that persists could be a sign of something far more serious, such as oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer.”

Early detection is key for better outcomes and survival rates.  Dr. Zevallos adds, “The earlier oral cancer is caught and the smaller the tumor, the less invasive the surgery. Larger tumors may require reconstruction that can affect swallowing and speech. If we catch the cancer in the early stages, we can avoid removing critical structures.”

Common symptoms of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer

  • Sores in the mouth or lips that won’t heal
  • White or red patches anywhere in the mouth, gums, tongue or tonsils
  • Persistent pain in the mouth, around the teeth or the jaw
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • A lump in the cheek
  • Jaw swelling (may affect the fit of dentures)
  • Loosening of teeth
  • A lump in the neck
  • Voice changes

Dr. Zevallos says, “The most important lifestyle choice a person can make to prevent oral cancer is to not smoke or chew tobacco. Drinking alcohol in excess also increases a person’s risk. The combination of the two exponentially increases the chances of being diagnosed with oral cancer. In addition to cancers caused by smoking and alcohol use, cancers of the throat caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) have dramatically increased in number.”  

The American Cancer Society lists other risk factors for oral cancer:

  • Being a man (oral cancer is almost twice in common in men than women)
  • Advanced age (cancer can develop slowly over time)
  • Sun exposure (years in the sun can increase risk of lip cancer)
  • Human papillomavirus or HPV (the most commonly sexually transmitted infection can cause cervical cancer and is a significant risk factor for oropharynx cancer)

Even if you don’t smoke or drink, it is important to be evaluated immediately by your doctor at the first possible sign of oral or oropharyngeal cancer. Early detection is key. While the primary treatment is surgery, some patients may also need radiation or chemotherapy. A multidisciplinary approach to treatment is essential to achieving the best possible outcomes. 

For more information or to make an appointment with Dr. Zevallos, please call 314-362-7509.

Ear, Nose and Throat Center
Center for Advanced Medicine
4921 Parkview Place, Suite 11A
St. Louis, MO 63110