Cases of mouth cancer have grown by more than a third over the last decade, according to a recent report, placing renewed emphasis on the importance of knowing the symptoms and having them checked out early.
According to research published by the Oral Health Foundation, 8,864 people in the UK were diagnosed with the disease in 2021, up 36 per cent on a decade ago, with 3,034 people dying with the illness within the year.
That represents an increase in deaths of 40 per cent in the last 10 years and a 20 per cent rise in the last five.
“Traditional causes like smoking and drinking alcohol to excess are quickly being caught up by emerging risk factors like the human papillomavirus (HPV),” said Dr Nigel Carter, chief executive of the Oral Health Foundation.
“The stigma around mouth cancer has changed dramatically. It’s now a cancer that really can affect anybody.
“We have seen first-hand the devastating effect mouth cancer can have on a person’s life. It changes how somebody speaks, it makes eating and drinking more difficult, and often changes a person’s physical appearance.
“We urge everybody to become more ‘mouth aware’ by being able to recognise the early warning signs of mouth cancer and to be aware of the common causes.
“Most importantly, if you notice anything unusual, please don’t delay and seek help from a doctor or dentist.”
The NHS explains that mouth cancer occurs when a tumour develops on the surface of the tongue, the inside of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth or the lips or gums.
Less commonly, tumours can also develop on the glands that produce saliva, your tonsils and the pharynx, the part of your throat connecting your mouth to the windpipe.
Oral cancer symptoms include:
- Painful mouth ulcers that do not heal, even after several weeks
- Persistent lumps forming in the mouth or neck
- Loose teeth or sockets that do not heal after extractions
- Numbness of the lip or tongue
- White or red patches forming on the lining of the mouth or tongue
- Changes in your speech, such as the sudden development of a lisp
If you experience any of the above symptoms and they do not disappear after three weeks, you are advised to have them looked at by a GP or dentist, particularly if you regularly smoke or drink alcohol, both of which are believed to increase your risk of contracting the condition.
Infection by HPV, as alluded to by Dr Carter above, is another common cause.
Mouth cancer is treated in three ways: by the removal of the cancerous cells by surgery, by radiotherapy or by chemotherapy.
These methods might be attempted in combination to ensure the cancer does not return and in the interest of preserving the functions of the mouth.
As preventative measures, the NHS recommends reducing your tobacco and alcohol intake and maintaining a healthy, balanced diet that includes fresh vegetables, particularly tomatoes, plus citrus fruits, olive oil and fish.
Regular dental check-ups are also advised to ensure any possible symptoms are spotted early.