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Oral Cancer

  • A blog looking at Oral Cancer and the importance of early diagnosis.

    By Steve Wake

What is oral cancer?

Most people have heard of cancer affecting parts of the body such as the lungs or breasts. However, cancer can appear in the mouth, where the disease can affect the lips, tongue, cheeks and throat, in fact all of the tissues of the mouth.

What are the symptoms of mouth cancer?

Common symptoms in mouth cancer however include:

  • lumps in the mouth
  • ulcers that continually reoccur or do not heal properly
  • patches of red or white in the mouth.

Other symptoms include pain, difficulty moving your jaw or swallowing, bleeding in the mouth or teeth that become loose for no apparent reason. Some symptoms may be unique to the individual.

How common is it?

The Oral Health foundation reports that nearly 7,000 new cases of oral cancer are being identified each year in the UK. The Foundation also reports that nearly 2,000 people die each year to mouth cancer.

What should I do if I am worried:

See your dentist and explain why you are worried. As mouth cancer can affect any part of the lips, cheeks, tongue or throat, your dentist has an ideal opportunity during a check-up to spot any changes that may raise suspicions as to the development of mouth cancer.  It is therefore another vital reason why regular dental check ups need to take place.

During a routine dental visit, your dentist will examine the whole of the inside of your mouth.  If he/she notices anything suspicious then they will be able to refer you for further investigation immediately.

Your dentist has access to parts of your mouth that you cannot routinely see yourself and as early detection of mouth cancer is crucial, it is important that your dentist is given regular opportunities to ensure you are not at risk.

Early detection is key

There is research that has shown that a high percentage of patients wait at least a month after symptoms commence before seeking help from their GP or dentist, and that a significant percentage of patients wait for more than three months before seeking any advice, this is probably because they attribute symptoms to minor, self-correcting conditions. For example a minor blemish on a tongue. This is called patient delay.

Patient delay is when a patient is unaware that the symptoms are indicative of something more serious and are either dismissive of the potential seriousness or through fear that it is something more serious.

Once a person has been diagnosed or at least referred for a diagnosis the system itself can cause delays. System delay occurs when a patient experiences a delayed diagnosis caused through primary or secondary care problems. Such delays could arise for any of the following reasons:

  • The GP, dentist or specialist fails to adequately investigate/screen the patient or fully appreciate the presenting symptoms
  • The GP, dentist or specialist fails to refer for further investigation
  • Following referral, the diagnosis is missed
  • The wrong diagnosis is given
  • A test result or diagnosis has been made but then is not communicated to a clinician so that the information is acted upon
  • In rare circumstances, the diagnosis or test result has been communicated to a clinician but no treatment has commenced.

The longer any cancer goes unnoticed or misdiagnosed, the more likely it is to spread and the more treatment may be required. Treatment like radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy may be necessary and the symptoms after that can be severe and life-changing.

The easiest way to screen for signs of mouth cancer is during a routine dental check-up. It is vital to seek medical advice if you suspect that you may have typical symptoms of mouth cancer and it is equally important that doctors and dentists take screening for mouth cancer seriously. Should you feel you have experienced a delay in the diagnosis of your mouth cancer or that your diagnosis was missed through negligent dental treatment then please contact a member of the dental negligence team who can offer you independent legal advice.

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