Mouth Cancer Awareness Month

November is Mouth Cancer Awareness Month which means a great opportunity for clinicians and patients alike to brush up on the warning signs of this highly destructive disease.

Oral cancer is the sixth most common type of cancer in the world but can be difficult to spot in its early stages because it’s often mistaken for common, non-sinister conditions such as mouth ulcers or oral thrush. Early detection is vital not only for long term prognosis, but to increase a patient’s chances of avoiding invasive surgery which can have a huge impact on their physical appearance as well as their ability to speak, chew and swallow. Therefore, dental surgeons have an important role to play both in increasing awareness of the symptoms, and actually spotting oral cancers during routine dental examinations.

More than 8,000 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer in the UK each year and only one in 8 of these is aged under 50. Tumours may occur on the surface of the tongue, the inside of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, the lips or gums.

Tumours 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 (pharynx). However, these are less common.

Mouth cancer can affect anyone but there are a number of known risk factors. These include smoking or chewing tobacco, drinking beyond recommended weekly limits.

The symptoms of mouth cancer include:

  • mouth ulcers that are painful and do not heal within several weeks
  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away
  • unexplained loose teeth or sockets that do not heal after extractions
  • unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on the lip or tongue
  • sometimes, white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue These can be early signs of cancer, so they should also be checked
  • changes in speech, such as a lisp

If any of these symptoms persist for more than three weeks, patients should see their GP – especially if they have a known risk factor for oral cancer. As dentists, being vigilant to the signs during routine examination and making information available in the waiting room are both important steps towards increasing the chances of early detection.