Mouth cancer – what do you need to know?

5 Min Read

A mouth being inspected

November 2020 is Mouth Cancer Action Month in the UK. There is surprisingly poor awareness of mouth cancer and November seeks to raise public awareness about the signs and symptoms and encourage self-checking. This is particularly important during the Covid pandemic where there has been disrupted access to dental care.

What is Mouth Cancer?

Mouth Cancer most often occurs in the tongue but can also affect the, tonsils, lips, gums, cheeks, roof/floor of mouth or in throat.

The signs of mouth cancer are:

  • A mouth ulcer that does not heal within 3 weeks
  • A lump or swelling in the lip or mouth
  • A persistent lump in the head or neck
  • White or red patches in the mouth

A mouth cancer can cause difficulties with breathing, swallowing and speech.

In the last year, nearly 9000 people were diagnosed with mouth cancer in the UK (Source Oral Health Foundation: the State of Mouth Cancer UK Report 2020/2021).

More than ¾ of new mouth cancers are detected in the over 50’s age category. 2/3 of patients diagnosed with mouth cancer are men. Lifestyle choices are the main risk factors for oral cancers. Smoking, drinking excess alcohol and the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), increase the risk of getting mouth cancer but other factors such as diet, family history of cancer and sun exposure are also relevant.

How is mouth cancer diagnosed?

Mouth cancers are not always easy to spot. It will usually be your dentist who will spot it during a routine dental check. If they are concerned about a possible cancer, you should be referred to a specialist and seen within 2 weeks. It is likely that you will then have some tests done including a scan and a biopsy, where a small sample of your cells are taken to be examined under a microscope to look for cancer cells. Some pre-cancerous abnormalities in the mouth can be treated with laser therapy to prevent them turning cancerous.

Treatment of mouth Cancer

If cancer is found, various different treatment options may be made available to you depending on where the cancer is, how fast it is growing and at what stage it is. Sometimes surgery will be needed which can be unpleasant and lead to difficulties with speech, swallow and even a change in appearance of the face. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy or targeted therapy (Cetuximab) may also be advised.

Smoking and regularly drinking above the recommended amount increase the risk of mouth cancer x 30

What support will I get?

You may need some help from a dietician / nutritionist during and after your treatment as eating your normal diet might be difficult. Talking and swallowing can sometimes be challenging after surgery and therapy can be made available to you to help you with this. You may experience a change in sensation in your mouth or a loss of your usual sense of taste and smell. This may not be permanent. You may need to have dental implants to replace damaged teeth or tissue in your mouth.

Is mouth cancer curable?

Detecting cancer early and starting treatment early has a significant impact on the chances of the cancer being successfully treated. Sadly, most mouth cancers are detected in the latter stages, when the cancer has already had a chance to spread and might be incurable. This is possibly because as a nation, we have been poorly educated about mouth cancer. The average person does not know enough about the risk factors, the signs to look out for and the importance of regular dental checks.

Covid and Mouth Cancers

As with all cancer referrals, there has been a significant reduction (65%) in the number of referrals to specialists with concerns about a suspected mouth cancer, due to Covid. It is estimated that 10 million UK patients have missed dental checks, partly because dental surgeries have been shut or less accessible during the pandemic. It is inevitable that many patients will experience a delay in diagnosis and the start of their treatment as a direct result of the pandemic.

What can I do to help myself?

Smoking cessation, alcohol moderation and healthy lifestyle choices for example good nutrition and regular exercise will help reduce your risk of getting a mouth cancer. Carry out regular self-checks of your mouth. Learn about the symptoms of mouth cancer so that you know what to look out for, and when to contact your dentist or GP with any concerns.

Now more than ever, with the pandemic continuing and access to medical care disrupted, regularly checking your mouth health is paramount. Look out for the signs and symptoms detailed in this article. If you have concerns, do not delay in seeking advice from your dentist or GP and a referral to specialist care in hospital.  Attend your regular dental checks where you can.

Early detection of any cancer is vital to ensure the best chance of curative treatment.

How can Enable Law help?

Enable Law have specialist medical negligence lawyers who can advise and help you if you have concerns about your dental or medical care. Sometimes, dental treatment after cancer diagnosis is more expensive. This is because not all dental treatment is funded by the NHS and so patients sometimes find themselves having to pay for their own dental reconstruction and other treatment once their main cancer treatment has ended. This can be difficult, and Enable Law may be able to assist with funding this treatment.

It is likely that any delays in diagnosis during the pandemic will not be deemed substandard care due to the need to prioritise medical resources to Covid patients. Should you have any concerns regarding your medical care, please contact us to speak to one of our specialist advisers.

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Ceri-Ann Taylor

Managing Associate View Profile >

Katja Robins

Consultant View Profile >