It’s Mouth Cancer Awareness Month, But Why Should We Care?

We have spoken about how to detect mouth cancer in our blog before but it’s again that time of year that we try to spread the message about mouth cancer. It’s not a cheerful subject exactly, but it’s an important one. The truth is that a lot of people still don’t know that oral cancer even exists, let alone how common it really is.

It’s important for us dentists (who know the chilling statistics) to educate and explain the risks of mouth cancer and indeed the benefits of early detection. So, please, share this post far and wide and hopefully it might save someone a great deal of suffering by prompting them to take early or preventative action.

No one really wants to talk about mouth cancer. For one thing the word cancer still isn’t deemed an appropriate word for every occasion, but if word of mouth can spread the message and help people get the help they need, then it’s worth talking about. Sadly, oral cancer has started to soar over the last two decades. The Oral Health Foundation has this to say: “With a 97% escalation in oral cancer across the UK in the past 20 years and patients slipping through the net during the Covid-19 crisis, it is more important than ever before that as a profession we play our part in educating the world about oral cancer.”

So, the number of oral cancer cases has almost doubled in the last 20 years. That’s not good news and while there are campaigns to encourage checking for signs of breast and testicular cancer and government funded adverts to remind people to seek early help for signs of lung and bowel cancer, we have yet to establish a way to effectively start a national conversation about mouth cancer. November is mouth cancer awareness month but how many people does it reach? Is everyone, indeed, aware of mouth cancer in November? We suspect not. At least, not to the same extent that people engage with other cancer awareness campaigns.

It seems so strange to us that there seems to be some kind of body-part hierarchy which implies that some parts of our bodies are more precious and worth looking after than others. Even if that is the general feeling, it can’t be the case that people have decided that their mouths aren’t that important, can it? I mean imagine how our lives would change if our mouths and subsequently our speech were compromised. Everyone knows the dangers of skin cancer, and rightly so, but why aren’t we willing to protect our mouths in the same way that we diligently apply sunscreen? Perhaps we need a celebrity behind the campaign to get people to listen, or perhaps we need a spot on a news channel breakfast show. Maybe we need to get people muddy and sweaty in some sort of physical challenge to spread the news that mouth cancer is on the rise and is described by the OHF as a “silent killer”. Actually, Moveit4smiles does just that. The initiative aims to take part in strenuous physical challenges to spread the word about mouth cancer. Heard of it?

In 2011, the BDA wrote that “a major problem is that more than half of all oral cancer cases have already metastasized to regional or distant structures at the time of detection which decreases the 5 year survival rate to less than 50% for tongue and floor of mouth cancers”. In layman’s terms that means that by the time most oral cancers are found by professionals, they have already spread to other areas, in the mouth or in the body. This means that the survival rates for those with mouth cancer are considerably lower and more distressing than they need to be. Indeed, the statistics aren’t pleasant.

Cancer research UK reports that 80 percent of those diagnosed with oral cavity cancer live for one year or more after diagnosis, but only 45 percent live up to ten years after. There are different types of oral cancer and the statistics change based on which type is diagnosed and your age and gender. The types are:

  • Mouth (oral cavity) cancer – Cancer of the mouth including lips, gums, roof and floor of the mouth and cheeks.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer – The part of the throat just behind the mouth.
  • Tongue cancer – Cancer manifesting on or under the tongue.

For full statistics of the survival rates of different types of cancers you can see the Cancer Research UK website.

Who gets mouth cancer though? Surely there are risk factors which put some more at risk than others. Cancer Research UK confirms that “mouth and oropharyngeal cancer is more common in men than women. 1 in 75 men and 1 in 150 women will be diagnosed with mouth cancer at some point in their life [and that] most mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in people over 60.” Tongue cancer in particular is associated with “smoking, drinking a lot of alcohol and infection with the HPV virus” as causes of the cancer.

Smoking and/ or drinking alcohol are associated risk factors with all mouth cancers. “Smoking tobacco (cigarettes, pipes, cigars) increases your risk of developing mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. Research suggests that more than 60 out of 100 (more than 60%) of mouth and oropharyngeal cancers in the UK are caused by smoking”, according to CRUK. They also say that “drinking alcohol increases your risk of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. Research shows around 30 out of 100 (30%) of mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are caused by drinking alcohol. Smoking and drinking together further increases the risk of cancer more than either by itself.”

We mention this because while the cause behind many cancers remains a mystery, there are trends in data which can help us prevent certain cancers should we wish to. Of course, we all know we shouldn’t smoke and shouldn’t drink to excess but it’s just too tempting to replace that thought with one along the lines of “but it won’t happen to me.” Well, if you’ve read this post all the way to here, you’ll know that scientific data doesn’t necessarily reflect that, particularly if you drink and smoke. Perhaps it’s hard to take mouth cancer seriously because it’s not talked about much, but that needs to change.

We encourage you to open your oral cavities and talk to your loved ones today about mouth cancer. We need everyone to understand how serious such a dramatic increase in mouth cancer is. Particularly this year when people were put off from attending their usual routine dental appointments and check-ups because of Covid-19. We need to be vigilant and make sure we know what to look out for. You can see our blog post about the signs of mouth cancer here. First, though, we need to know that oral cancer exists, so spread the word, share this article, and talk about it with those in your life.

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