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

Anyone can be affected by mouth cancer, whether they have their own teeth or not.

Mouth cancer is 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.

In the last year, 7,800 have been diagnosed with mouth cancer in the United Kingdom – an increase of more than a third compared to a decade ago.

Globally, more than 300,000 people every year are given the news that they have mouth cancer.

What can cause mouth cancer?

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.

What are the signs of mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer, perhaps more so than many other forms of cancer, is highly dependent on early detection.

Many cases are discovered at stage 4, where it is just too late. However, if it is caught early, the chances of surviving mouth cancer are nine out of ten – those odds are pretty good, and that’s why early detection is so important.

Mouth Cancer Action Month will again promote the message ‘If in doubt, get checked out’ and encourage everybody to pay more attention to what’s going on inside our mouth.

As mouth cancer can strike in a number of places, including the lips, tongue, gums and cheeks, and given that early detection is so crucial for survival, it’s extremely important that we all know what to look out for.

Three signs and symptoms not to ignore are:

  • Red and white patches in the mouth.
  • Unusual lumps or swellings in the mouth or head and neck area.

If any of these are noticed, it is essential that you tell your dentist or doctor immediately.

How can mouth cancer be detected early?

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.

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.

If your dentist finds something unusual 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.

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.

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.

How can I keep my mouth 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.

It is also important to cut down on your smoking and drinking.


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