9 Mar 2016

Over the last decade we have seen a dramatic increase of mouth cancer cases in the UK, yet public awareness of it remains dangerously low. As President of the British Society of Dental Hygiene and Therapy, I believe we can put this huge increase down to a lack of general awareness of the extreme dangers smoking has on our oral health and mouth cancer in particular.

Most people are by now well aware of the potentially fatal health risks associated with smoking. Links with cancer, heart disease and strokes are all well engrained in the public psyche, but there remains a blind spot in many people, and that is of smoking's relationship with their oral health.

It is due to this that I wanted to use No Smoking Day to draw the dental professions attention to the close relationship between smoking and mouth cancer, and highlight the vitally important role they can play in helping people to quit smoking and potentially even save lives.

The rise in mouth cancer

Recent statistics published by Cancer Research UK show the alarming rate at which mouth cancer has increased in the UK. They report that over the last decade alone oral cancer incidence rates have increased by more than a third1 (34%), which means in excess of 7,500 people are now told they have mouth cancer every year.

This is really a hugely disturbing trend. Mouth cancer is now the 10th most common cancer in men in the UK and 15th most common in women. Overall, mouth cancer is the 14th most common cancer in Britain and if current trends continue is on track to rapidly move up the list.

The majority of these cases, almost two-thirds, remain the result of smoking, yet what is truly worrying is that millions of people remain completely unaware of this potentially fatal relationship.

Research from the British Dental Health Foundation revealed that one in four people did not think that smoking was a cause of mouth cancer, and this is where I believe we can really make a difference.

As dental professionals we can tackle this head on, we are in a position to use our knowledge and access to patients to make them aware of the specific dangers of smoking on their oral health and help them quit.

What can we do?

As a dental team we are in a blessed position when it comes to helping people stop smoking. We have a combination of skills, expertise, knowledge and access which is arguably only afforded to health professionals. As a result, we all have a joint responsibility to use this to the advantage of our patients.

We have to make sure that all the statistics, information and advice being produced reaches the right sectors of society in order for them to have the maximum impact. During No Smoking Day, and beyond, we can help patients understand the links between smoking and their oral health.

Smoking attributes to around 5,000 oral cancers in the UK every year. Unfortunately, kicking the habit will not completely absolve the chances of being diagnosed with mouth cancer but ex-smokers reduce their risk by a third compared to current smokers.

This means that around 1,700 people could be sparred this awful ordeal every year. It's a significant number and one we as a profession should be aiming to achieve

One way we can do this is by talking with patients about the effects of mouth cancer. Many cases of mouth cancer are diagnosed too late to be treated effectively, when cases do not lead to death it can affect things we take for granted such as eating, drinking, speaking and even breathing.

This undoubtedly has a huge psychological effect on a person.

We are also in a position to help recognise the risk factors in patients to make a difference. For example, mouth cancer is diagnosed in more than twice as many men than women in the UK. Making patients aware of this means the right people are given the most effective information.

Dental professionals can go further then prevention too. Since some tumours are often hidden dentists, dental hygienists and DHT's are becoming the first line of attack in the fight against mouth cancer, we are perfectly placed to catch mouth cancers early enough to make a difference to a person's survival and quality of life.

We all need to take what we know and use the right opportunities, such as No Smoking Day, to make a real difference.

No smoking day is a springboard

The BSDHT is wholeheartedly supporting the British Heart Foundation's (BHF) annual No Smoking Day campaign and is encouraging people to quit on Wednesday March 9, 2016. No Smoking Day is a wonderful opportunity for dental professionals to use as a springboard to make patients aware of the impact of smoking on their oral health.

We need to make sure that patients are aware that quitting smoking dramatically reduces their chances of developing mouth cancer and a large range of other potentially fatal health problems.

Even though the serious health implications of smoking are known far and wide, ten million people in the UK still smoke, leading to roughly 100,000 deaths every year.

We want you to urge your patients to speak to their GP, local smoking cessation services or simply get them to tell family and friends about their ambitions to quit; ensuring they are surrounded by encouragement and support to help maintain motivation.

Last year the campaign helped to inspire thousands of people to embark on their quitting journey and we hope this year's No Smoking Day will see dental professionals help many more proud quitters come out the other side.

I have previously described dental professionals as being at the point of the spear in the fight against mouth cancer and in helping people quit smoking this is exactly what we can be.