Signs and Symptoms of Lip Cancer

For cancers in the mouth, you, your dentist or your general doctor can see or feel something abnormal in most cases. This is different from cancers in other parts of the head and neck, which can remain hidden for some time.

Symptoms to watch for include:

  • A lump or lesion on the lip: This is the most common way for a cancer on the lip to be identified. If you have a lesion that just doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks, or maybe even after trying some medicines, you should be evaluated for lip cancer.
  • Painful sores in the mouth: Most commonly, an oral cancer will start as a painful sore in the mouth. In some cases, a dentist or dental hygienist will see a sore in the mouth that you didn’t even realise was there. In general, a patch or sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal after a few weeks should be evaluated in more detail by a specialist.

In some cases, a dentist or oral surgeon will see something in the mouth, remove it and a week later get the report that it is a cancer.

If a lesion was removed and later found to be cancer: In this case, you should still see a specialist in head and neck cancers because it is important to review the pathology in detail to see if any more treatment is needed. Some questions to review are:

  • What type of cancer was it?
  • How big was it?
  • How deeply did it invade?
  • Was it completely removed with a rim of normal tissue around it? (This is known as having “clear margins.”)

In rare cases, the first sign of a lip cancer could be a lump in the neck.

  • A lump in the neck: This means that the tumour has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. This is less common for oral cancers than other types of cancers in the head and neck because the primary cancer is usually the main problem.

A more thorough list of possible symptoms from lip cancer include:

  • Recurrent bleeding from the mouth: This can happen when the cancer makes a hole in some part of the mouth (this is called an ulcer) or if cancer cells are accidently rubbed off while brushing your teeth or eating certain foods.
  • Loose teeth or dentures that don’t fit correctly: This happens if the tumour gets into the tooth sockets or the bones in which the teeth are rooted.
  • Difficulty opening the mouth: This can happen if the cancer gets into any of the muscles that help to open and close the mouth. This is called trismus.
  • Numbness (for example in the lower teeth or lower lip/chin area): This means that the cancer cells have gotten into nerves that allow you to feel. The main nerve responsible for this when dealing with oral cancer runs just inside the lower jawbone, and a branch even runs in the middle of the jawbone and comes out under the skin of your chin.
  • Pain or difficulty with swallowing: This can happen when tumours get large and either get in the way of eating or involve the muscles and nerves of swallowing.
  • Bad breath: In rare circumstances, when cancer cells start to become necrotic, the dead cells can lead to a bad smell from the mouth. This is called halitosis.

But don’t jump to any conclusions. You could have one or more of these symptoms but NOT have a lip cancer. There are several non-cancerous causes of the same symptoms. That’s why you need to see a specialist.