Let’s talk about oral cancer with Dr Alice Fitzgibbon

Let’s talk about oral cancer with Dr Alice Fitzgibbon

This month’s article is about oral (mouth) cancers. Oral cancer can grow anywhere inside the mouth, including on the lips, the gums, or the tongue. Although oral cancer is not a common cancer (cases account for 1 in 50 of all cancer cases); it is really important to know the signs to look out for so they can be checked out early.

So, what are the signs of oral cancer? The three main symptoms are:

– Red or white patches that appear on the surface of the mouth or tongue

– Mouth ulcers

– Any new lumps or growths noticed in the mouth, on the gums or the tongue.

If any of these signs appear, and last for longer than three weeks, then you need to let your GP or dentist know. With coronavirus, many of us may have missed out on dental check-ups. Dentists are also always on the lookout for signs of oral cancer in patients so if you are due to a check-up it is always worth attending!

Oral cancer is associated with some strong risk factors. Firstly, it is more common in people who smoke heavily or use tobacco products. Secondly, it is more common in people who drink alcohol heavily. For people that both smoke and drink alcohol, the risk is even higher. Having poor oral hygiene, such as tooth decay and gum disease also increases the risk. In the last few years, more cases of oral cancer are being linked to the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV); this is the same virus that is known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts.

Oral cancer is more common in men than women and is most often diagnosed between the age of 50-74 years. It can affect younger people too, so the signs are worth knowing about.

If you have any concerning symptoms, then speak to your GP. They can refer you to a specialist for further assessment. Often, a biopsy (a sample) of the area will be taken. This sample is then looked at to find out what is wrong. There are different types of oral cancer, but the most common one is called squamous cell carcinoma (it causes 9 out of 10 cases). If you are diagnosed with oral cancer, you will be offered treatment depending on where the cancer is and how developed it has become. Treatment can include surgery to remove it, radiotherapy (using X-rays to kill the cancer cells) or chemotherapy (medication to kill the cancer cells). The earlier an oral cancer can be found and treated, the better the outcome will be, and often a complete cure can be found with a combination of treatments. Cancers that are found late may need bigger operations to remove them which might then have an effect on speech and swallowing afterwards.

So how can you lower your risk of developing oral cancer? Reducing your smoking and alcohol is the first step! By stopping smoking, you will lower the risk of many types of cancer and also save a lot of money! By sticking to the recommended units of alcohol per week (up to 14 units) and not drinking more than this, your risk can be lowered too. Having regular dental check-ups and eating a balanced ‘Mediterranean style’ diet with fresh foods, fish, tomatoes, and olive oil can also help.

So please don’t ignore any changes that you notice around your mouth. Take a little longer when you brush your teeth to have a look at your tongue, gums, and lips. If you notice any changes then report them to your dentist or GP – it is much safer to get checked out, then to let something grow that shouldn’t be there. GPs are always happy to check these out if you aren’t sure.

For further information on oral cancer go to www.nhs.uk/conditions/mouth-cancer/

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