Raising awareness about oral cancer

MOUTH Cancer Action Month is a campaign which has the dual aim of raising awareness and improving understanding about oral cancer in both the public and the profession.

It is supported by many organisations from dentistry, pharmacy, cancer research and smoking cessation groups.

The campaign runs throughout November and is co-ordinated by the British Dental Health Foundation.

During the next decade the British Dental Health Foundation estimates that around 60,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with the disease, and without early detection half will die. Worldwide, over 460,000 people are expected to die from mouth cancer each year by 2030.

Mouth Cancer Action Month aims to improve the awareness of the symptoms, risk factors and early warning signs of the disease, as this is arguably the best way of improving the survival rate of patients.

Establishing a preventive strategy of intensive public awareness, the campaign continues to help provide professional education programs, aimed at reducing or eliminating delays in presentation, referral, and diagnosis of mouth cancer.

In addition to the campaign raising awareness of mouth cancer to the public and highlighting the need for screenings and early detection within the dental profession, Mouth Cancer Action Month is also heavily involved in lobbying.

Over the last year, a number of mouth cancer sufferers and experts have lent their support to an e-petition calling for a debate on a loophole in NHS treatment costs.

As it stands, people with mouth cancer have no guarantee to receive restorative treatment paid for by the NHS.

Restorative surgery means many sufferers face a poor quality of life, and research suggests a large percentage of long-term survivors have to cope with persistent poor oral health, eating problems and even depression.

As campaigners of mouth cancer, the British Dental Health Foundation is concerned that the lack of free examinations for mouth cancer from NHS dentists is hindering improvements in mouth cancer survival rates.

Many NHS patients have to pay for the privilege of having a mouth cancer check – a condition which kills more than cervical cancer and testicular cancer combined each year.

The British Dental Health Foundation fully urge as many people as possible to sign the e-petition at www.mouthcancer.org to ensure this issue is debated and changed.

Tell me about mouth cancer

Q What is mouth cancer?

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

Q Who can be affected by mouth cancer?

A Anyone can be affected by mouth cancer, whether they have their own teeth or not. Mouth cancers are more common in people over 40, particularly men. However, research has shown that mouth cancer is becoming more common in younger patients and in women. There are, on average, almost 6,000 new cases of mouth cancer diagnosed in the UK each year. The number of new cases of mouth cancer is on the increase.

Q Do people die from mouth cancer?

A Yes. Over 1,800 people in the UK die from mouth cancer every year. Many of these deaths could be prevented if the cancer was caught early enough. As it is, people with mouth cancer are more likely to die than those having cervical cancer or melanoma skin cancer.

Q What can cause mouth cancer?

A Most cases of mouth cancer are linked to tobacco and alcohol. Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoking are the main forms of tobacco use in the UK. However, the traditional ethnic habits of chewing tobacco, betel quid, gutkha and paan are particularly dangerous. Alcohol increases the risk of mouth cancer, and if tobacco and alcohol are consumed together the risk is even greater. Over-exposure to sunlight can also increase the risk of cancer of the lips. Many recent reports have linked mouth cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body. HPV can be spread through oral sex, and research now suggests that it could soon rival smoking and drinking as one of the main causes of mouth cancer. Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances of contracting HPV.

Q What are the signs of mouth cancer?

A Mouth cancer can appear in different forms and can affect all parts of the mouth, tongue and lips. Mouth cancer can appear as a painless mouth ulcer that does not heal normally. A white or red patch in the mouth can also develop into a cancer. It is important to visit your dentist if these areas do not heal within three weeks.

Q How can mouth cancer be detected early?

A Mouth cancer can often be spotted in its early stages by your dentist during a thorough mouth examination. If mouth cancer is recognised early, then the chances of a cure are good. Many people with mouth cancer go to their dentist or doctor too late.

Q What is involved in a full check-up of the mouth?

A The dentist examines the inside of your mouth and your tongue with the help of a small mirror. Remember, your dentist is able to see parts of your mouth that you cannot see easily yourself.

Q What happens if my dentist finds a problem?

A If your dentist finds something unusual or abnormal they will refer you to a consultant at the local hospital, who will carry out a thorough examination of your mouth and throat. A small sample of the cells may be gathered from the area (a biopsy), and these cells will be examined under the microscope to see what is wrong.

Q What happens next?

A If the cells are cancerous, more tests will be carried out. These may include overall health checks, blood tests, x-rays or scans. These tests will decide what course of treatment is needed.

Q Can mouth cancer be cured?

A If mouth cancer is spotted early, the chances of a complete cure are good, and the smaller the area or ulcer the better the chance of a cure. However, too many people come forward too late, because they do not visit their dentist for regular examinations.

Q How can I make sure that my mouth stays healthy?

• It is important to visit your dentist regularly, as often as they recommend, even if you wear dentures. This is especially important if you smoke and drink alcohol.

• When brushing your teeth, look out for any changes in your mouth, and report any red or white patches, or ulcers, that have not cleared up within three weeks.

• When exposed to the sun, be sure to use a good protective sun cream, and put the correct type of barrier cream on your lips.

• A good diet, rich in vitamins A, C and E, provides protection against the development of mouth cancer. Plenty of fruit and vegetables help the body to protect itself, in general, from most cancers.

• Cut down on your smoking and drinking.