What is mouth cancer?
By Dr Alexandra Day
Cancer of the tongue and oral cavity are the most common forms of mouth cancer, followed then
by the throat, lip, neck and other mouth cancers make up the rest of cases. It is one of a very few
cancers that experts predict case numbers will increase in the coming years.
Who can be affected by mouth cancer?
Anyone can be affected by mouth cancer, whether they have their own teeth or not
Mouth cancers are more common in people over 40 with more cases seen in men than women
Research shows however that mouth cancer is becoming a more increasing problem in younger patients and in women.
More than 90% of mouth cancers in men and 85% in women are linked to lifestyle choices and environmental factors
Do people die from mouth cancer?
Yes. Nearly 2,000 people in the UK die from mouth cancer every year, more than testicular cancer
and cervical cancer combined. Many of these deaths could be prevented if the cancer was
diagnosed early enough. Early detection for mouth cancer can result in a survival outcome of 90%.
However, delayed diagnosis means survival rates plummet to as little as 40%.
What can cause mouth cancer?
Two thirds of mouth cancer cases are linked to smoking tobacco. Smokers put themselves at almost
three times higher risk and second-hand smoke significantly increases the risk for those who have never smoked.
Smokeless tobacco use can increase the risk of developing mouth cancer by 15 times. The traditional
habits in some cultures of chewing tobacco, betel quid, gutkha and paan are particularly dangerous.
Drinking alcohol to excess is linked to around a third of all cases and those who smoke and drink to
excess put themselves at risk by up to 30 times.
More than half of cases in the UK are linked to a poor diet.
Overexposure to sunlight increases the risk of cancer of the lips. from the sun has been linked to cancer of the lip.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is estimated to overtake smoking as the number one cause of mouth
cancers in the future. HPV can be spread through oral sex, and research now suggests that HPV could
soon rival smoking and drinking as one of the main causes of mouth cancer.
What are the signs of mouth cancer?
Mouth cancer can appear in different forms and can affect all parts of the mouth, tongue and lips.
Mouth cancer can appear as a painless mouth ulcer that does not heal normally. A white or red
patch in the mouth can also develop into a cancer. Be aware of any unusual lumps in your mouth
or jaw area and any persistent hoarseness or difficulty swallowing. It is important to visit your
dentist if you have any of these symptoms that persist for more than 2 weeks. Your dental check-
ups at Bishopsgate dental will always include an oral cancer examination as standard.
What is involved in a full check-up of the mouth?
The inside of your mouth and your tongue will be examined by the dentist and the examination will
also look at your neck and underneath your jaw. It’s also great for you to check your mouth
regularly at home and pick up any changes quickly. Remember, your dental team can see parts of
your mouth that you cannot see easily yourself so it’s always best to make sure you have your
mouth regularly checked by a professional.
What happens if my dentist finds a problem?
If the dental team find something unusual they will fully assess and photograph the area and refer
you immediately to see an oral medicine consultant who will carry out a thorough examination of
your mouth and throat and may take a small biopsy to examine the area under the microscope.
They may organize further blood tests, x-rays or scans to help decide if any treatment is needed.
Can mouth cancer be cured?
There are treatments for mouth cancer but complete cure chances are significantly reduced if the
diagnosis is late. Regular examinations are crucial to ensure any problems are spotted early. If you
are worried or unsure, do not hesitate to get any lumps or ulcers checked out.
How can I try and prevent getting mouth cancer?
Stop smoking, and cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink.
Avoid other forms of smokeless tobacco
Eat a balanced, healthy diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Practising safe sex and limiting the number of partners you have may help reduce your chances
of getting HPV associated with mouth cancer.
Visit your dental team regularly as they recommend, usually around every 6 months.