Kickstart mouth cancer awareness


  Posted by: Dental Design      7th November 2020

Every year 8,337 people in the UK are diagnosed with mouth cancer. That’s almost one person every hour and numbers are rising at an astounding rate.[1] The problem is that people appear to be more aware of cancers that affect other parts of the body even though the latest research indicates that deaths from mouth cancer have increased by 22 percent compared with five years ago.[2] Mouth cancer or oral cancer is very preventable and early detection is essential to increase the chances of successful treatment.[3] Nevertheless, during 2020, dental services have been severely disrupted and thousands of patients have been unable to attend routine checks including screening for oral cancer. Consequently, the early stages of mouth cancer in some patients may have been overlooked.

The reality is that 74 percent of British adults have never checked their mouth for signs of cancer.1 There is a distinct lack of awareness regarding the symptoms of mouth cancer and according to the Oral Health Foundation, understanding of the most common risks associated with the disease is poor.1 Unfortunately, 45 percent of mouth cancers are identified at stage 4 when the cancer is at its most advanced, which perfectly illustrates the need for urgent public health education. Mouth Cancer Action Month is designed to raise the nation’s awareness and is the ideal opportunity for dental professionals to kick start an all year-round mission to inform, educate and improve early diagnosis rates.

Firstly, patients need to understand that oral cancer can develop anywhere in the mouth including inside the cheeks, on the tongue, on the palate or the floor of the mouth as well as the lips or gums. Although there are several different cancers that can occur in these areas, the most common is called squamous cell carcinoma, which arises when changes occur in the squamous cells that line all surfaces of the skin and mucosa. Other less common cancers include adenocarcinomas that can develop inside the salivary glands and sarcomas that can grow from abnormalities in bone, cartilage or muscle. Additionally, it is possible for lymphomas to develop in the mouth and oral malignant melanomas to appear in the oral mucosa.[4]

It is unclear what causes most mouth cancers, but dental professionals can educate patients about the factors that can increase the risk of developing the disease. Of course, it is well known that smoking cigarettes causes cancer but as well as the use of tobacco products, alcohol also contains carcinogenic nitrosamines and presents an increased risk of mouth cancer. Patients should also be informed that drinking alcohol and smoking together further increases the risk of mouth cancer than each of these factors individually.[5]

Human papillomavirus or HPV infection is another risk factor. This type of virus infects the skin and cells lining body cavities, which may cause changes in the mouth and throat that could make them more likely to become cancerous in time. Similarly, broken teeth that can cause persistent ulcers or wounds on the tongue or irritation to the lining of the mouth, may heighten the risk of developing mouth cancer. Other risks that have been implicated include exposure to UV radiation from the sun and a diet that is low in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.5

The common symptoms of oral cancer that patients should look out for are:

  • Ulcers or sores that do not heal within 14 days
  • White or red patches inside the mouth
  • A growth or lump on the lip or in the mouth, throat or neck
  • Pain, numbness or bleeding in the mouth area
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Persistent pain in the throat or ear
  • Changes in voice or speech problems

As mentioned previously, mouth cancer is often only detected in the late stages and consequently, it can have a mortality rate of about 50 percent at five years from diagnosis. However, the survival rate increases to 85 percent when cancers are small, which is why dental professionals should promote regular self-examination. As well as a thorough visual inspection, patients should use a finger to feel around all areas of the mouth, cheeks, tongue and neck to check for any lumps, abnormalities and any changes in appearance. [6] Furthermore, if any irregularity is noticed, no matter how small or subtle, patients need to understand how important it is to seek professional attention immediately.

As always, patients should be encouraged to keep the teeth and mouth as healthy as possible, and Waterpik® is committed to helping the nation improve and maintain good oral health. The Waterpik® Water Flosser, for instance, is accredited by the Oral Health Foundation and offers patients a quick, easy and gentle way to floss. Dental professionals can confidently recommend these products to help improve people’s oral health. Clinicians can also support patients with advice on how to quit smoking, limiting or not drinking alcohol, and eating a healthy diet. What is important is to raise awareness, reduce the risks of mouth cancer and, hopefully, prevent it altogether.


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Author- Maxwell O’Neill, professional educator for Waterpik


[1] State of Mouth Cancer UK Report 2019/2020. A report by the Oral Health Foundation. [Accessed 4th August 2020]

[2] Muller P et al. Cancer Research UK Cancer Survival Group, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Net survival and the probability of cancer death from rare cancers. [Accessed 4th August 2020]

[3] Garg P et al. “Catch them before it becomes too late.” Oral Cancer Detection. Report of two cases and review of diagnostic AIDS in cancer detection. Int J Prev Med. 2012 Oct;3(10): 737-741. [Accessed 4th August 2020]

[4] The Oral Cancer Foundation. Resources. Oral Malignant Melanoma. [Accessed 19th August 2019]

[5] Cancer Research UK. Mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. Risks and causes. [Accessed 4th August 2020]

[6] The Royal Marsden Foundation NHS Trust. Oral Cancer. [Accessed 4th August 2020]

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