History and Background

The origins of Mouth Cancer Action Month aimed to address the growing concern of significantly increased diagnoses of mouth cancer in the UK. There was a real worry that there was a general lack of awareness when it came down to learning about the risk factors, along with knowing what to look out for. Without being able to recognise early signs and symptoms, diagnosis of mouth cancer was becoming increasingly prominent in the later stages, resulting in more lives lost.

The very first mouth cancer campaign, was formed following a number of roundtable meetings involving some of the UK’s leading dental and health professionals, headed up by the late Richard Horner. In 1998, the first campaign was introduced. It became the forerunner to what we now know as Mouth Cancer Action Month and aimed to tackle awareness issues, particularly surrounding lifestyle choices, where smoking and drinking were becoming highly acceptable, particularly amongst the young.

Mouth Cancer Awareness Week 2003

The Oral Health Foundation launch Mouth Cancer Awareness Week in 2003

In 2003, Richard Horner, who had managed the campaign until that point, handed it over to the Oral Health Foundation, where it would undergo a re-brand as Mouth Cancer Awareness Week. As a trustee and board member of the oral health charity, Richard remained passionate about the disease and campaign throughout his later years.

In addition to facing growing changes in the way society viewed links associated with mouth cancer, such as tobacco, alcohol and sex, Mouth Cancer Awareness Week also had challenges educating people about what to look for – an issue that continues to this very day. It was then when the slogan ‘If in Doubt, Get Checked Out’ was first formed. Accompanied by increased press and media activity, Mouth Cancer Awareness Week urged everybody to visit their dentist if they found: a mouth ulcer that had been present for more than three weeks, unusual lump or swellings, or red and white patches in the mouth.

The first Mouth Cancer Awareness Week in 2003 also saw the introduction of the campaign’s Blue Ribbon Appeal. The badges are used to generate awareness by acting as a conversation starter between a patient and their health professional. Today there are more than half a million Blue Ribbon Badges in circulation.

A reinvigorated public awareness campaign was followed by numerous cases of success in helping to reform Government law in relation to regulations surrounding some of the major causes of mouth cancer. A direct marketing ban on tobacco in May 2003 was followed by the smoking ban in September 2007. Since then we have seen a momentous fall in the number of smokers in the UK, a factor which will have numerous long term benefits, not only for mouth cancer but for general health and wellbeing benefits too.

Richard Horner

Founder Richard Horner attending a recent Mouth Cancer Action Month event

Despite the hard work pushing through new legislation, the number of mouth cancer sufferers continued to grow in the coming years. As it began to effect more and more lives, there became a greater need to not only raise awareness, but to take action. In November 2009, Mouth Cancer Awareness Week became Mouth Cancer Action Month, heralding a month-long dedicated campaign to not just raising awareness, but also taking vital action to reduce the harm caused by the disease.

In recent years, we have seen a new challenge present itself. The number of human papillomavirus (HPV) mouth cancers has grown considerably, with many experts predicting that it will one day surpass smoking tobacco as the number one cause of the disease. In an immediate response, Mouth Cancer Action Month began work with numerous organisations to back a gender-neutral HPV vaccination for boys.

To this day, Mouth Cancer Action Month continues to engage more people year-on-year, largely thanks to the growing activities of dental and wider health professionals who use the campaign as a springboard to tirelessly raise awareness of mouth cancer. In recent years, Mouth Cancer Action Month has seen significant uptake of involvement and fundraising from dental and health professionals, helping to expand the campaign’s messages, not only to their patients, but in their local communities also.

Mouth cancer is beatable. By knowing the early warning signs and symptoms and by understanding what puts us at greater risk, we can dramatically improve our chances through early diagnosis. Through Mouth Cancer Action Month we can make a real difference by improving knowledge of the disease, and ultimately help save thousands of lives.