When it comes to cancer, we might like to think that we’re pretty clued up. It’s now fairly established that we should be aware and proactive in checking for an unusual lump to the breasts or testicles in the search for cancer.
But is that the same for mouth cancer and if not, what should we be looking for?
The number of people diagnosed with mouth cancer in the United Kingdom has now exceeded 7,500 a year, an increase of more than two thirds (68%) over the last 20 years, making it one of the nation’s fastest increasing cancers.
Yet little is known about it.
Leading charity the Oral Health Foundation has found more than three in four (78%) Brits do not feel like they know enough about mouth cancer, with awareness over potential warning signs and risk factors associated with the disease being remarkably low.
As part of November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation and Simplyhealth Professionals’ Dr Catherine Rutland, have offered their best advice for how to recognise the early warning signs and potential risk factors of mouth cancer.
What causes mouth cancer?
“Around nine in ten mouth cancers are linked back to lifestyle choices,” says Dr Nigel Carter.
“Most cases are linked to tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption while the human papillomavirus (HPV), transmitted through oral sex, and poor diet have also been named as the most likely causes.”
While smoking is linked to three quarters of all mouth cancers, those that smoke and drink alcohol to excess increase their risk of mouth cancer by up to 30 times.
More recently, reports have linked mouth cancer to the human papillomavirus (HPV). It is the major cause of cervical cancer and affects the skin that lines the moist areas of the body. The virus can be spread through oral sex and research now suggests that it may soon overtake smoking as the leading cause of mouth cancer.
Dr Carter adds: “It is never too late to make a change by amending your lifestyle choices. Quitting smoking can reduce your risk of mouth cancer by more than a third while with alcohol, moderation is so important.
“Practicing safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances of contracting HPV; and a diet rich in fruit and vegetables will not only keep your body fit and healthy, but it can also help to reduce the risk of mouth cancer.”
What are the warning signs of mouth cancer?
Mouth cancer can appear in different forms and a number of different places in and around the mouth, lips, head and neck.
It 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, as can any unusual lumps or swellings.
Dr Catherine Rutland, Head of Professional Support Services at SimplyHealth Professionals, says: “Be proactive rather than reactive. You might be accustomed to your mouth ‘sorting itself out’ and don’t pay attention to what is going on, but in order to recognise the signs of the disease earlier, this needs to change.
“Places to check include the floor and roof of the mouth, inside of the cheeks, the tongue, lips, head and neck.
“If you notice anything out of the ordinary in these places, it is vital that you book an appointment with a dentist immediately.”
Although many mouth cancers are linked to risk factors, this is not always the case.
“Mouth cancer can affect anybody, so it is important that you are Mouthaware and can recognise the potential symptoms,” adds Dr Rutland.
Why is early diagnosis so important?
Identifying mouth cancer at an early stage transforms chances of survival from 50% to 90%.
Dr Carter says: “Mouth cancer is beatable, but you must act quickly. The key to this is being alert to the early warning signs and seeking immediate help when you notice anything suspicious.
“In addition to conducting self-checks at home, the more regularly you pay visits to the dentist, the better chance you have to spot anything unusual at an earlier stage.
“Visiting your dentist or hygienist is about much more than caring for your teeth and gums, as they will visually examine you for mouth cancer during every check-up.”
The mouth cancer check you can do at home
Face: Look at your face and neck in the mirror, do both sides look the same? Look for any lumps, lumps or swellings that are only on one side of your face.
Neck: Feel and press along the sides and front of your neck. Can you feel tenderness or lumps?
Lips: Pull down your lower lip and look inside for any sores or change in colour. Next, use your thumb and forefinger to feel the lip for lumps, bumps or changes in texture. Repeat this on your upper lip.
Cheek: Use your finger to pull out the cheek so that you can see inside. Look for red, white or dark patches. Put your index finger inside of your cheek and your thumb on the outside. Gently squeeze and roll your cheek to check for any lumps, tenderness or ulcers. Repeat on the other cheek.
Roof of the mouth: Tilt back your head and open your mouth wide to see if there are any lumps or if there is any change in colour. Run your finger on the roof of the mouth to feel for any lumps or ulcers.
Tongue: Stick out your tongue and look at the surface for any changes in colour and texture. Gently pull out your tongue and look at one side first, then the other side. Look for any swelling, change in colour or ulcers. Examine the underside of your tongue by placing the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
Floor of the mouth: Look at the floor of your mouth for changes in colour that are different than normal. Gently press your finger along the floor of your mouth and underside of your tongue to feel for any lumps, swellings or ulcers.