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Jessica Watson discusses mouth cancer and the signs to look out for and the importance of early detection.
November is Mouth Cancer Awareness month, but what do we really know about mouth cancer?
I was shocked to read information, on the Mouth Cancer Foundation’s webpage, that stated that mouth cancer causes more deaths per number of cases than breast cancer, cervical cancer and melanomas. This got me to thinking what do we really know about mouth cancer and could the lack of public awareness for this type of cancer be the reason that when mouth cancer is detected it is often too late to be treated.
Mouth cancer includes cancer that starts anywhere in the oral cavity including lips, tongue, gums, the inside lining of the cheeks and the floor and roof of the mouth. It is also possible to develop salivary gland cancer.
Tobacco use is considered to be the main cause of mouth cancer. In conjunction with tobacco, alcohol is also said to be a common cause of cancer of the mouth, as is a poor diet.
As per our recent blog ‘Stoptober: How Giving Up Smoking Will Improve Your Dental Health’, dental experts should offer patients smoking cessation advice and tailor treatment plans to suit their patients.
Additionally mouth cancer has been linked to poor dental hygiene. Research, involving over 3,000 adults, has linked poor dental hygiene with the likelihood of an oral infection called the human papilloma virus (HPV). In some cases HPV can cause genetic changes in cells that make them more likely to become cancerous in the future. Therefore, people whose teeth and gums are in poor condition may be more susceptible to an oral virus that can cause certain mouth cancers.
Symptoms of mouth cancer are often similar to symptoms of much less sinister medical conditions that are not cancer. Symptoms can include;
• Mouth ulcers that do not go away after a number of weeks;
• An unexplained lump in the neck that won’t go away;
• A lump on the lip or in the mouth that will not go away;
• Red or red and white patches in your mouth
There is currently not a national screening program in the UK for mouth cancer despite Cancer Research UK statistics that suggest that mouth cancer kills one person every three hours in the UK because of late detection.
Here at the Dental Negligence Team we often advise people who have presented to professionals with mouth cancer symptoms several times but have received no follow up. Sadly by the time the cancer is detected the chance of survival is greatly decreased by fact that treatment was not provided rapidly.
A further obstacle that may stand in the way of people experiencing problems is whether we should turn to our dentist or our GP when concerned about mouth cancer symptoms.
The simple answer is both. Many dentists routinely check for mouth cancer and are therefore often the first to identify cancer of the mouth in their patients. Additionally if your GP suspects oral cancer then they should consider an urgent referral to a dentist for further checks.
There are UK guidelines for dentists and GPs that advise them when they need to refer patients to the hospital to see a specialist.
The NICE guidelines, say when GPs should consider an urgent referral to a cancer specialist but also provide guidelines for non urgent referrals in relation to conditions which are not cancerous, but can lead to cancer in some people over time, if they are not treated.
As with all health issues, self responsibility must play a part in earlier detection. People should report any changes in their mouths to their GP or dentist. This is especially important if you smoke and drink heavily. Regular dental check ups, at least yearly, even in people with false teeth are essential.
Dental professionals are the natural leaders to lead the fight against cancer of the mouth and dental practices throughout the country are holding free cancer screening during Mouth Cancer Awareness Month this year.
Raising awareness is particularly important so that the public know what to avoid and what to look out for. A recent Cochrane Oral Health Group review showed that more research is needed to find out if a screening program for mouth cancer can help to pick up mouth cancers earlier, and if alternative diagnostic tests for oral cancer can be offered to avoid the current scalpel biopsy used. The biopsy is both painful for patients and involves a delay whilst tests are carried out to diagnose the cancer and determine the appropriate treatment. Increased awareness will in turn help raise money to support such research.
Subsequently the future may see quicker referrals and diagnosis leading to lowered fatalities.
In conclusion, knowledge is power in the fight against oral cancer. This Mouth Cancer Awareness Month join the likes of the Dental Negligence Team, Mouth Cancer Foundation and head and neck cancer charities across the UK in the drive to raise awareness for this lesser known but very serious form of cancer.
If you are concerned that you may have received a negligent or delayed diagnosis of mouth cancer, please contact a member of the Dental Negligence Team, who will be happy to advise you on your particular circumstances.