8 November 2016

How aware are we about what goes on in our mouth? Our mouths are one part of all our bodies which we use constantly every single day we often use it without thinking through behaviour such as eating, drinking or speaking, when something goes wrong in our mouth we do tend to notice, whether it be a sore spot on our tongue an ulcer on our cheek or chipped tooth. Our tongues tend to be magnetically pulled towards the problem area until it is fixed. But what about the things that are not so obvious? How aware are we of the changes that happen over a longer period of time or without pain? It is these changes that we all must be very aware of as mouth cancer cases increase at alarming rate across the United Kingdom.

Over the last decade mouth cancer cases have risen by a heart-breaking 39% in the UK. This is more than five times the increase of all cancer cases in the UK during the same time period (7%). Mouth cancer is now the 14th most common cancer in the UK and as time goes on it is moving quickly up that list.

Also, unlike many other cancers, alongside this rapid increase in cases the chances of surviving mouth cancer have not improved either. While much progress has been made in detecting and treating cancers such breast, testicular and bowel revolutionising outcomes and giving us better chances of survival, those who are unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with mouth cancer are not being afforded the same chance.

This is largely due to the time when cases of mouth cancer are detected. Many mouth cancers are caught too late to give a person the opportunity of a positive outcome. It is estimated that chances of 5-year survival based on a late diagnosis is in the region of 50% but this can be transformed to 90% if it is caught early enough. This is exactly why all of us must be aware of any changes in our mouth and get anything that we feel is unusual checked out by our dentist or doctor straight away.

Lack of awareness

If we are to change the course of mouth cancer survival in the UK we all must be more aware of what is happening in our mouths. A recent study carried out in aid of Mouth Cancer Action Month painted an incredibly worrying picture on the state of our mouth awareness.

I would bet that almost everybody knows that a lump in the breast could potentially be a sign of breast cancer or a lump on our testicles would have to be looked at straightaway, but disturbingly this is not the case for our mouth. The research reveals less than two in three (59%) know that lumps or swelling in the mouth, head or neck are a potential warning sign of mouth cancer. I hope you would agree with me that this is a startling finding and is in dire need of changing.

Alongside this, only 56% of those questioned know that mouth ulcers which do not heal within a couple of weeks are a possible warning sign of mouth cancer. Only 40% of us recognise that red patches are a warning sign and even less for white patches, with just over a third (36%). I know that if I had a sore or unexplained problem appear on any other part of my body for more than a couple of weeks I would get it checked out as soon as possible, so why should my mouth be any different?

More than one in ten of those asked (11%) believe that none of these are signs of mouth cancer, which with the dramatic rise in cases we have seen in recent years is particularly worrying, and is undoubtedly contributing to the lack of progress in improving survival rates.

Almost 90% of mouth cancer cases can be linked back to lifestyle factors; smoking, drinking to excess, HPV and chewing betel nut are some of the major causes. Although it’s important that everybody is alert to what is going on in their mouths if a person has any of these risk factors they should be especially aware of any changes.

I believe many of us have become accustomed to our mouths ‘sorting itself out’ and stop paying close enough attention to what is going on in there to be able to recognise the signs of mouth cancer early and change the potential outcomes. Self-examination can be the key to beating mouth cancer and should be done on a regular basis.

Men at risk

This research also flagged some worrying news for men. Now, we all know many men are not very efficient at visiting their doctor or dentist. This may be down to being scared that it could be something serious or just a mind-set that it will not happen to them or will fix itself in time. This is definitely not the case when it comes to mouth cancer.

More than twice as many men (5,100) are diagnosed with mouth cancer as women (2,500) every year, so they especially need to be vigilant of the signs and symptoms of the disease. Yet our research uncovers a dangerous lack of knowledge among men in the UK.

Men are remarkably worse at recognising every single major sign of mouth cancer than women: only slightly more than half of men (54%) compared to almost two in three women (63%) saw lumps and swelling as a problem and it was worse when it came to ulcers (47% compared to 65%), red patches (35% compared to 46%) and white patches (30% compared to 41%) in the mouth.

Men simply must become more aware of being able to identify and recognise these symptoms because as it stands, they are putting themselves at dangerously high risk of a late diagnosis.

Mouth awareness and action

blue lip selfie

It is thought that 1 in 75 men and 1 in 150 women will be diagnosed with mouth cancer during their lifetime. Wembley Stadium has a capacity of 90,000, so in any crowd, it’s possible that between 600 and 1200 of these either have been or could be diagnosed with mouth cancer at some stage during their life. Something to think about when you next go to see England play or your favourite band in concert.

With such a high number, all of us must be more aware of any changes in our mouth; but it is not just the levels of awareness which need to change, it is also what we do when we notice any changes.

We have uncovered that 5%, that is one in 20, say they would not seek help for a mouth ulcer which lasted for more than a couple of weeks.

With the dramatic difference an early diagnosis can have on potentially surviving mouth cancer this must change.

Even for those who have survived mouth cancer it is those things we take for granted that they often lose, the ability to eat, drink, speak and even breath. I have spoken to many mouth cancer survivors and many of them have the same advice for the public, “be more aware of what is going on in your mouth, it could save your life”.

Mouth Cancer Action Month runs throughout November and is organised by the Oral Health Foundation and sponsored by Denplan. The charity campaign is aiming to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer, in order to get more cases caught early enough to make a difference to the chances of survival.