The numbers of people being diagnosed with mouth cancer is increasing, and the British Dental Health Foundation is concerned about an investigation showing the amount of time people wait before seeking medical advice.
Recent research has shown that those with the early warning signs of mouth cancer are more likely to wait longer before seeking a proper diagnosis than for any other type of cancer. As a result survival rates are likely to significantly decline. The study showed that most people will wait nearly a month in between spotting the first signs of mouth cancer and visiting their dentist or doctor.
In comparison people with kidney or bladder cancer symptoms were likely to wait just two or three days before seeking help. The most common symptom of mouth cancer are ulcers that fail to heal within a couple of weeks, and according to the British Dental Health Foundation, more than half of us would wait four weeks or even longer before seeking advice.
These are worrying statistics, and show that a lot of people don’t really know what to look for and are unaware of the symptoms and signs of this disease. As a result most people are diagnosed extremely late in the day, when it’s important to act quickly to try to preserve or extend life. A late diagnosis can reduce the five-year survival rates to as little as 50%, whereas an early diagnosis can increase these rates up to 90%.
The easiest way to decrease your risk of having late stage mouth cancer is to have regular check-ups. Part of your dental examination will include a quick check for the signs of mouth cancer, and your dentist is probably the only medical professional who will regularly see the inside of your mouth. This means they are perfectly placed to detect any early signs. You can also help yourself by keeping an eye out for anything that might be wrong in between appointments. Classic signs can include:
- Mouth ulcers or sores that fail to heal within two or three weeks
- Changes to the colour of the tissues inside the mouth, for example development of any white or red areas
- Changes to the way your teeth bite together
- Noticing you have difficulty swallowing
- Noticing your voice sounds different, or having a persistent sore throat
- The development of lumps or rough areas in the mouth
It can be worth just checking the inside of your mouth every month, and then you’ll become more aware of how healthy tissue should look so you can pick up on any small signs and symptoms that could indicate the cells are changing.
What is involved in a full check-up of the mouth?
The dentist examines the inside of your mouth and your tongue with the help of a small mirror. Remember, your dentist is able to see parts of your mouth that you cannot see easily yourself.
What happens if my dentist finds a problem?
If your dentist thinks there’s something wrong then they’ll need to take a small sample of cells to send off for analysis. This can be done using a brush biopsy, where a small brush is rolled over the suspicious surface to pick up a few cells, or if necessary a small tissue sample can be removed under local anaesthetic. It’s worth stressing that on most occasions any symptoms will be due to some other condition, but why take the chance with your health? Your dentist would far rather check out any symptoms than have you receive a late diagnosis.
What happens next?
If the cells are cancerous, more tests will be carried out. These may include overall health checks, blood tests, x-rays or scans. These tests will decide what course of treatment is needed.
Can mouth cancer be cured?
If mouth cancer is spotted early, the chances of a complete cure are good, and the smaller the area or ulcer the better the chance of a cure. However, too many people come forward too late, because they do not visit their dentist for regular examinations.
How can I make sure that my mouth stays healthy?
It is important to visit your dentist regularly, as often as they recommend, even if you wear dentures. This is especially important if you smoke and drink alcohol.
When brushing your teeth, look out for any changes in your mouth, and report any red or white patches, or ulcers, that have not cleared up within three weeks.
When exposed to the sun, be sure to use a good protective sun cream, and put the correct type of barrier cream on your lips.
A good diet, rich in vitamins A, C and E, provides protection against the development of mouth cancer. Plenty of fruit and vegetables help the body to protect itself, in general, from most cancers.
Cut down on your smoking and drinking.