Mouth Cancer Action Month

November is Mouth Cancer Action Month, a charity campaign organised by the Oral Health Foundation. Latest figures show that 8,864 people in the UK were diagnosed with mouth cancer last year, and the number of people getting mouth cancer has more than doubled (103%) in the last 20 years, so making people aware of how to identify mouth cancer, and what to do, can help to treat it early. At Portman Dental Care, the quality and care of our patients is at the forefront of everything we do, which is why we are taking this opportunity to work with the Oral Health Foundation (OHF) to raise awareness of what mouth cancer is, signs, symptoms and treatment options.

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What is mouth cancer? 

Cancer can be a scary word that many people shy away from, but understanding what mouth cancer is and how to spot it can be instrumental in increasing chances of surviving.

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is when a lesion (an area of abnormal tissue) develops in the lining of the mouth. This could be the inside of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, the tongue, the floor of the mouth, the lips or gums. These lesions can also develop in the glands that produce saliva, the tonsils at the back of the mouth, and the part of the throat connecting your mouth to your windpipe (oropharynx) – although these are less common.

There are different types of mouth cancer, which are categorised by the type of cell that the cancer (carcinoma) starts to grow in. The most common type is squamous cell carcinoma and accounts for 9 in 10 cases. These cells are found all over the body, including the inside of the mouth, so the mouth is not the only place that a squamous cell carcinoma can develop. Less common types of mouth cancer include:

  • Adenocarcinoma, which develops in the salivary glands
  • Sarcoma, which grows from abnormalities in bone, cartilage, muscle or other tissue
  • Oral malignant melanoma, where cancer starts in the cells that produce pigment, although this is rare inside the mouth
  • Lymphoma, which grows from cells in the lymph glands, but can also grow in the mouth

Around 70% of mouth cancers are linked to the human papilloma virus, or HPV. Although this common virus usually causes no harm, in some people the virus can cause changes in the throat or mouth, leading to the chance that it will become cancerous in the future. In recent years, there has been an increase in HPV oral cancers, and is being increasingly seen in people aged between 40 and 50 (and younger) who don’t smoke. With 5% of all cancers being linked to HPV, it’s worth considering the HPV vaccine. This is offered to teenagers in schools to help prevent cases, and is available to adults too. Not everyone is eligible for free HPV vaccines, but there are affordable private options too.

What are the first signs of cancer in the mouth?

Keeping an eye out for signs and symptoms to spot mouth cancer early means that we have a much better chance of beating it. Like most cancers, an early diagnosis greatly improves chances of surviving, and for mouth cancer an early diagnosis means a 9 out of 10 positive outcome – which are pretty good odds.

Check your mouth regularly for:

  • Ulcers that do not heal within three weeks
  • Lumps or swellings inside the mouth, head or neck area
  • Red, white or dark patches in the mouth
  • Sores or changes in colour inside the lips or cheeks
  • Changes in colour or texture on the surface of the tongue, or under the tongue
  • Unexplained loose teeth or sockets that do not heal after extractions
  • Changes in speech, such as sudden hoarseness not related to a cold or flu virus

During Mouth Cancer Action Month, alongside the OHF, we are promoting the message “if in doubt, get checked out”. Together we are encouraging everybody to be ‘mouthaware’ and pay close attention to what’s going on inside the mouth. The most important thing to keep in mind is that if you notice anything out of the ordinary, speak to your dentist immediately.

Can mouth cancer be treated?

The good news is – yes! Mouth cancer can be treated, and when diagnosed early, treatment has a 90% success rate.

Your treatment will depend on the stage and grade of the cancer, as well as your general health. The main aim of treatment is to remove and destroy the cancer, and your doctors will also try to reduce the long-term effects of treatment. You may only need one type of treatment, but sometimes 2 or more treatments are given.

Surgery is often the only treatment needed to remove early-stage mouth cancer. The surgeon removes the cancer and a small area of normal tissue around the lesion or tumour, leaving less chance of cancerous cells being left behind.

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to healthy cells. This treatment is sometimes given instead of surgery to treat early-stage mouth cancers, or in conjunction with surgery in more advanced cases.

Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. This treatment can be given before surgery or radiotherapy to shrink the cancer, or to treat any cancer that has spread or come back after earlier treatment.

The type of treatment that a patient with mouth cancer requires would be dependent on a range of factors, such as how progressed the cancer is alongside other lifestyle factors, and would be confirmed by the doctor at an early appointment.

Risk factors

It is not known what exactly causes most mouth cancers, however there are several factors that may increase the risk. Up to 90% of all mouth cancers are linked to lifestyle factors, meaning that with a few small changes, you can help reduce the chances of developing mouth cancer.

Smoking 

More than 60% of mouth cancers are linked to smoking, as smoking tobacco can increase the risk of developing mouth cancer by up to 10 times, compared to people who have never smoked.

Alcohol 

Intaking excessive amounts of alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer and is linked to 30% of all mouth cancers. Smoking and drinking together trebles a person’s mouth cancer risk.

HPV 

More recent reports have linked mouth cancer to human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects skin that lines the moist areas of the body. 

How a dentist can help

Your dentist will check for mouth cancer at every routine dental check-up, so it’s always worth keeping up regular visits to your dentist. If you have any of the signs or symptoms mentioned above, it’s important to contact your dentist as soon as possible. They will perform a physical examination and talk to you about your symptoms. Your dentist may suggest reviewing the problem if they have any doubts about it, and in any case if your signs or symptoms haven’t improved after 3 weeks, contact your dentist again as your chances of survival improve from 50% to 90% with early detection.

If mouth cancer is suspected, your dentist will refer you to your nearest hospital for further tests or an appointment with a specialist oral and maxillofacial surgeon. To test any suspicious areas further, the hospital may perform a biopsy. This is where a small sample of affected tissue is removed to be checked for cancerous cells.

Although the word ‘cancer’ can be scary, spotting symptoms early can make a huge difference. Practicing good dental health habits (such as brushing teeth for 2 minutes twice a day, flossing regularly, avoiding high sugar foods), alongside checking for symptoms and reducing smoking and alcohol intake are positive steps towards keeping your mouth healthy and reducing your chances of developing mouth cancer.

If you are unsure, or have any further questions, book an appointment with your Portman dentist who will be happy to ease any concerns.

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