We talk about dental health a lot. In recent months, we’ve seen ‘shocking’ reports on the extent of our nation’s tooth decay, headlines warning about the link between gum and heart disease and we’re more concerned than ever about how sugary drinks and fruit juices can erode tooth enamel.
One thing we’re not talking much about, though, is mouth cancer.
One in 10 people are unaware of the threat of mouth cancer, according to the British Dental Health Foundation, yet for almost half of us, it’s the type of cancer we worry about most.
This November, Mouth Cancer Action Month aims to get us more clued up on the facts.
How common is it?
Mouth cancer occurs in a number of different forms, including cancer of the tongue, oral cavity, lips and throat. There were more than 6,700 cases of mouth cancer diagnosed in the UK last year, which equates to 18 people a day.
This may sound a lot but it actually makes it “relatively uncommon, accounting for about 1 in 50 of all UK cancer cases”, notes Dr Steve Preddy, Bupa’s clinical director of dentistry. Mouth cancer is currently the 16th most common cancer in the UK, but cases have trebled in the last decade and numbers are expected to continue rising.
Who’s most at risk?
Smoking is, by far, the biggest known risk factor, with a morning ciggie doubling a person’s chances of developing the disease.
Alcohol is also linked with mouth cancer, and those who drink and smoke a lot are up to 30 times more likely to get it.
“Most cases first develop in older adults between 50-74 years of age, and it’s generally more common in men than women,” says Preddy.
“This is thought to be due to the fact that, on average, men drink more alcohol. Most cases are linked with the use of tobacco products, especially in combination with alcohol.
“Mouth cancer can occur in younger adults, and this is increasing,” he adds.
“It’s thought that HPV infection may be responsible for the majority of cases in younger people.”
Scientists also believe a poor diet and family history of the disease are significant risk factors, plus it’s thought people with six or more missing teeth are more commonly affected.
How serious is it?
All cancers are potentially serious but, as with the vast majority of cancers, early diagnosis is key – if caught and treated early, survival rates for mouth cancer are relatively high at 90%.
Although the number of cases has risen over recent years, treatment has also improved and the prognosis is generally much better.
However, the disease still kills more than 2,000 people in the UK each year, which is more than testicular and cervical cancer combined, and more than road traffic accidents.
So what are the warning signs?
Your dentist may spot signs of mouth cancer long before you do – which is why it’s absolutely crucial not to skip dental appointments; even if you think your gnashers are fine, regular check-ups could save your life.
There are some potential symptoms that you may spot on your own too, says Bupa’s Preddy.
“There are different types of mouth cancer and they present in various forms,” he says.
“Signs to have checked by a dentist or doctor are ulcers, which may be painless, that have been present for more than three weeks, red and white patches and unusual lumps and swellings [around the mouth, tongue, lips and neck area].
“All of these can be present in other less serious conditions, but it is important to have them checked.”
For more information visit Mouth Cancer Action Month.