Mouth cancer awareness - Mind your mouth
As of last year, more than 8,300 people were diagnosed with mouth cancer in the UK, with this life-changing news reaching a global diagnosis in excess of 300,000 people per year. The number of cases of mouth cancer seems to be displaying an upward trajectory, a trend that we desperately need to overcome. But how do we achieve this?
Well, by educating ourselves about mouth cancer, we better our chances of beating it. By this, we mean having the knowledge on how to spot signs of mouth cancer at an earlier stage, whilst the fight is more in our favour. Also, knowing the subsequent steps to take if we do suspect something abnormal, erring on the side of caution, and finally eliminating risk factors for mouth cancer by holding tight to the motto that prevention is better than cure.
What is mouth cancer and which areas of the mouth does it affect
Before we delve into mouth cancer, it is important that we first understand what cancer itself is.
Cancer is a condition whereby cells in a specific part of the body grow and reproduce uncontrollably. These are known as cancerous cells and have the potential to invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue and eventually life-sustaining organs.
Mouth cancer, also known as “oral cancer”, is where a tumour develops in the mouth. The most common oral structures affected in mouth cancer include the tongue, inside the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, the gums, and possibly the lips. Less commonly affected areas include the tonsils, saliva producing glands, and the windpipe.
How to recognise mouth cancer - Mouth cancer symptoms
Signs of mouth cancer
- An early sign may be the development of white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue but are not always present in all cases of mouth cancer.
- The presence of mouth ulcers, which may be painful and have trouble healing. To be safe, you should suspect cancer if ulcers don’t heal within a couple of weeks (typically three).
- Unexplained and persistent numbness or an unusual feeling on the lip or tongue.
- Unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away.
- Changes in speech, for example, the development of a lisp.
- Unexplained loose teeth or a socket that doesn’t heal after having a tooth extracted.
- Unexplained ear pain.
- Difficult or painful swallowing.
- Unexplained weight loss, due to advanced cancer or as a consequence of painful cancer that makes it difficult to eat and swallow.
The above-mentioned symptoms are not always sure signs of cancer, however, it is recommended that you see your GP or dentist if the symptoms have not improved within 3 weeks. If you are experiencing any oral symptoms that are not listed above, and they’re causing you considerable stress, make sure to visit your dentist or GP as soon as possible.
What are the risk factors for developing mouth cancer
We can’t be definite about what causes cancer in the mouth, but there are several risk factors that can potentially increase your risk of developing mouth cancer:
Smoking increases your chances of developing mouth cancer
Statistics show that smoking tobacco increases your risk of developing mouth cancer by 10 fold. There is also evidence to show that there is a link between second-hand smoke and a person’s risk of developing mouth cancer.
Quitting smoking can be a difficult undertaking, but you should know that there is help available in the form of smoking cessation services. Just contact your GP or visit a pharmacy for relevant advice and products to help you along your journey.
Drinking alcohol increases your chances of developing mouth cancer
Alcohol is linked to just under a third of all mouth cancer cases. Alcohol is thought to have this detrimental effect in two ways:
- Alcohol makes it easier for cancer-causing compounds, for example, those found in tobacco smoke, to penetrate healthy cells and cause DNA damage (which causes the cells to rapidly divide, replicate to the point of becoming cancerous).
- When alcohol is broken down by the body, hazardous compounds are formed which can directly damage DNA, which can then lead to the development of cancerous cells. If you feel as though you have a problem with alcohol, don’t hesitate to get into contact with your GP, who can then consider different treatment options (both medical and psychological).
Exposure to HPV "human palpillomavirus" increases the chances of developing mouth cancer
HPV – Which stands for “human papillomavirus”, is the major cause of cervical cancer. HPV can be spread to the mouth via oral sex, and the incidence of such causes of oral cancer is on the rise. Practising safe sex and limiting the number of sexual partners you have may help to reduce your risk of contracting HPV, and in turn reducing your risk of developing mouth cancer.
Boys and girls aged 12 to 13 are now routinely vaccinated against HPV. This vaccine was developed with the primary goal of reducing the incidence of cervical cancer. By reducing cervical cancer it is likely that mouth cancer caused by HPV will also reduce in incidence.
Smokeless tobacco products increase the chance of developing mouth cancer
These include chewing tobacco and the lesser-known product named ‘snuff’, which is a powdered form of tobacco designed to be snorted. As previously mentioned, tobacco increases the risk of mouth cancer due to harmful chemicals found within tobacco, which trigger changes in the cell’s DNA, in turn potentially leading to the development of oral cancer.
Some examples of other smokeless tobacco products include – Gutka, Pan masala (aka betel quid), Zarda, amongst many others.
An unhealthy and unbalanced diet can increase your risk of developing mouth cancer
There is evidence that having an unhealthy and unbalanced diet can increase your risk of developing some forms of mouth cancer. In an effort to eradicate this as a possible risk factor, we need to ensure that we are eating a healthy, balanced diet (see NHS eat well plate for a visual representation https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-eatwell-guide/). Place an emphasis on fruit and vegetables, as these are theorised to reduce the risk of developing mouth cancer.
Bad oral hygiene is a risk factor for developing oral cancer
All forms of cancer are sometimes linked with long-standing wounds, and mouth cancers are no different. For example, the development of long-lasting and recurrent ulcers or wounds on the tongue. This is why we should take oral hygiene very seriously, which includes our teeth, a key way of ensuring this is by getting regular dental checkups.
How to check for oral cancer at home (a simple and comprehensive guide)
As we have mentioned previously, mouth cancer can affect different areas of the mouth, including the tongue, inside the cheeks, the roof of the mouth, the gums, the lips, amongst others. Like with all forms of cancer, early detection is vital to ensure a better prognosis (likely course, and predicted outcome of a disease, and the chances of recovery).
Three vital signs of mouth cancer which should be a cause for concern include:
- Mouth ulcers which don’t heal within three weeks.
- Red and white patches in the mouth (tend to be present in early cancer).
- Unusual lumps or swollen areas in the mouth, or even the head or neck (may indicate a possible spread of cancer).
The following routine can prove beneficial in making sure that you check the entire mouth adequately for any signs of mouth cancer:
Head and neck
Assess all sides of the head and neck, and make sure there are no irregularities. Check for irregular lumps and swollen areas. To assess the neck, feel and press along the entire length of the neck, including the sides and the front (we recommend repeating this a couple of times to be sure).
Pull down your lower lip, and with the help of a mirror check for any swelling, changes in skin texture, and mouth sores, which in more cases than not will just be mouth ulcers or mouth herpes rather than cancerous cells. With cancerous cells, you will notice that the sores are more irregular in shape, and may have undergone changes in colour.
Repeat these checks on the upper lip with the same attention to detail.
Use your finger to pull out your cheek in front of a mirror, so that you can see and assess the inside of it, after which you should look for red, white, or dark patches.
Using your index finger to press inside the cheek, use a finger from the apposing hand, preferably the thumb, and press and move this along the outside of the cheek to check for lumps, ulcers, and feel for any tenderness. Remember to assess both cheeks with the same attention to detail.
The roof of the mouth
Inspecting the roof of the mouth is something usually done by your dentist, because they have the appropriate tools and expertise to assess this hard to reach area. Another important reason to keep up to date with regular dental checkups.
Again, stand in front of a mirror and stick your tongue out, pull a funny face if you have to. Make sure to pay attention to the sides and also the underside of the tongue. As with the other areas of the mouth, look out for swelling, a change in colour, ulceration, and additionally any changes in texture.
The floor of the mouth
It may seem tedious at this point, as you will again be looking for any changes in colour, by using a finger to check for swelling, unusual lumps, and ulcers. Moreover, try your utmost to not become complacent, as this can hinder you in carrying out a thorough self-check.
Mouth cancer checklist
By carrying out the above points in chronological order, you will be able to develop an easy to remember routine of assessing for signs of mouth cancer, in a manner that takes into account all of the areas that may be affected by mouth cancer.
Tests will be carried out by a doctor or dentist, in which they look and test for any abnormalities. One way in which mouth cancer is diagnosed is through physical examination, whereby the healthcare professional will look for abnormalities such as sores, red and white patches, and areas of irritation. Another method to further confirm diagnosis is that once a possibly abnormal area of skin is discovered, your doctor or dentist may remove a sample of skin (cells) from in this area in the mouth, ready for laboratory testing, in a procedure known as a biopsy.
These cells are then analysed for any abnormalities. This procedure can also give an indication as to whether these cells may later become cancerous.
Yes, mouth cancer can spread directly to other parts of the mouth, with some examples being skin surrounding the mouth and the back of the jaw.
Mouth cancer can also spread indirectly throughout the body via the lymphatic system, which is
a large network of vessels and glands found throughout the body, and forms part of the immune system. The lymph glands are an example of a part of this system and are one of the first areas where secondary cancers form.
In conclusion, the more we know about mouth cancer, the better our chances are at beating it. We hope that you are now better equipped to recognise the signs of mouth cancer, and are motivated to implement the above-recommended changes throughout your day-to-day life in order to reduce the risk of developing mouth cancer.
Did you find the method of checking for mouth cancer easy to follow?
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