Trust urges people to be aware of the signs of mouth cancer

editorial image

To support Mouth Cancer Awareness Month, the Head and Neck Cancer Team in the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust are encouraging people to be more aware of the early signs and symptoms of mouth cancer and the main risk factors.

Anyone can get mouth cancer, but most cases are linked to lifestyle choices and certain risk factors. Mouth cancer rates are continuing to rise in both men and women, especially in the under 50s, with more young people developing mouth cancer than ever before. In the last year there were 6,767 cases of mouth cancer diagnosed in the UK. Mouth Cancer affects the lips, tongue, cheek lining, gums, palate and floor of the mouth.

In Northern Ireland approximately 220 people are diagnosed with oral cancer every year, and sadly more than one third of those diagnosed with mouth cancer will die from the disease. Every year mouth cancer kills more people than cervical or testicular cancer.

Experts have suggested that a sexually transmitted virus known as the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) could rival tobacco and alcohol as a leading risk factor for mouth cancer in the next 10 years. HPV can be transmitted via oral sex and is increasingly being linked to mouth cancer. It is important that people are aware of the specific risk factors linked with HPV that include having oral sex and first sex at an earlier age (under 18). Younger people with multiple sexual partners are therefore more at risk of developing mouth cancer. Some research indicates that people with mouth cancer caused by HPV may have a greater chance of survival.

Other important risk factors to be aware of include:

• Smoking - One in five people in the UK smoke and the habit is still considered the leading cause of mouth cancer. Many people are aware of the damage that smoking does to their lungs, but not to their mouth.

• Alcohol - Drinking to excess can increase mouth cancer risks by four times. As alcohol aids the absorption of tobacco into the mouth, those who smoke and drink to excess are up to 30 times more likely to develop the disease.

• Poor diet - New research has suggested that there is reduction in the risk of mouth cancer with each additional daily serving of fruit and vegetables. A healthy, balanced diet is important in reducing your risk of mouth cancer.

Unfortunately 70 per cent of mouth cancers are detected at a late stage because people are not aware of the warning signs. Late presentation of mouth cancer results in lower chances of survival. When detected early, mouth cancer patients can experience survival rates of around 90 per cent. Therefore, ‘EARLY DETECTION COULD SAVE LIVES’.

Dentists are trained to screen for signs of mouth cancer. Regular dental check-ups allow the dentist to look for any early warning signs of mouth cancer. As well as attending your dentist, it is recommended that you look for mouth cancer. Self-examination is a simple, potentially life-saving process.

Look out for:

• Ulcers which do not heal within three weeks

• Red and white patches in the mouth

• Unusual lumps or swellings in the mouth or neck area

Other signs and symptoms to be aware of are pain when swallowing, a tooth that becomes loose for no obvious reason, a hoarse voice, earache or difficulty opening the mouth.

Many of the symptoms listed above can also be caused by less serious conditions, such as minor infections that do not usually require a medical diagnosis. Nonetheless, it is strongly recommended that you visit your GP or dentist if you develop any of the symptoms listed above, especially if they last for more than three weeks. Symptoms of an infection usually clear up much sooner than this.

The key message is ‘IF IN DOUBT, GET CHECKED OUT’.