The term ‘mouth cancer’ (‘oral cancer’) is used to describe cancers that are found in the mouth, on the lips and in the throat. It is estimated that there are about 3,500 new cases of mouth cancer each year in the United Kingdom. Mouth cancers make up between 1 and 4 of every 100 UK cancers. In other parts of the world, such as the Indian subcontinent, mouth cancers make up about 4 of every 10.
Like a cancer in any other part of the body, mouth cancer impacts on quality of life and can cause death. It occurs with a similar frequency to cervical cancer and skin cancer and has a high death rate. A person has a 50/50 chance of surviving for more than five years following treatment. This is because many people do not become aware of a possible mouth cancer until it is well advanced.
The edges of the tongue are the most common sites for mouth cancer, followed by the floor of the mouth, and the gums towards the back of the lower jaw.
The early signs to look for are:
- An ulcer or sore that has been present for about one month
- A white or red patch.
These early signs may be overlooked because they are painless. Later signs may include:
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Swelling of any part of the mouth
- Difficulty moving the tongue or jaw.
There are two major factors that increase the chances of getting mouth cancer. These are tobacco (either chewed or smoked) and alcohol use. 8 in every 10 cases are linked to a person using tobacco and alcohol together. The risk of mouth cancer is increased 35 times if you smoke more than 40 cigarettes and drink more than four units of alcohol daily.
Being in the sun a great deal is a major cause of lip cancer.
A diet that lacks the vitamins found in fresh fruit and vegetables is a risk for all cancers, including mouth cancer.
Self help action
- Stop tobacco use - whether smoked or chewed
- Reduce alcohol use
- Wear a suitable sun block outdoors in bright sunshine
- Eat five helpings of fresh fruit and vegetables daily
- Carefully examine the lips, tongue and floor of the mouth regularly - the earlier a cancer is spotted, the better chance of a successful recovery.
- Visit a dentist regularly
A thorough mouth examination by a dentist is recommended for everyone at least once a year. During this general review a cancer may be spotted. This examination should take place even if you have no teeth and wear a denture.
The dentist may ask about tobacco and alcohol use, and advise on stopping or reducing the amount. Stopping tobacco and alcohol use will not only help to prevent mouth cancer but also many other health conditions. The dentist can provide a clear explanation and answer any questions about mouth cancer including what treatment is available and how it is arranged.
If soreness or irritation in the mouth continues for about a month then a dentist should be consulted. If the dentist thinks you have mouth cancer he will refer you to a specialist unit. Further tests will be carried out in the specialist unit so that a clear diagnosis can be made.
Useful phonelines include: 0800 169 0 169 (national tobacco quitline) and 0345 320202 (national alcohol quitline).