Oral Cancer: the signs to spot

Twenty-one people are diagnosed with it every day in the UK – and smoking is the most common cause. But I’m not talking about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the chronic lung problem most commonly linked to smoking – or even to lung cancer.

If I asked you to think of a cancer (yes, I know you’d prefer not to), you’d probably think of breast or bowel cancer, because these are so common. But we forget mouth cancer at our peril – cases have increased by nearly 40% in the last decade alone. That means one in 150 women, and one in 75 men, will be diagnosed with mouth cancer over a lifetime. If you don’t want to be a statistic, read on for some top tips.

What are the warning signs?

Mouth cancer can affect any part of your lips or mouth – in fact, most mouth cancers start in the tonsils. The most common sign is an ulcer or sore patch that doesn’t heal. However, you should also look out for lumps or red or white patches anywhere in your mouth (including your tongue); unusual bleeding or numbness; pain when you chew or swallow; or a feeling of something being caught in your throat. Mouth cancer gets more common with age (half those affected are in over 65s) – so don’t ignore sore patches under dentures.

How is it diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects mouth cancer, he or she will refer you to be seen by a specialist within two weeks. A biopsy can confirm the diagnosis, and if caught early, the outlook is good. Surgery is the most common treatment, but you may also be offered radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

What are the risk factors?

While smoking is the single biggest risk factor , drinking too much alcohol or having teeth and gums in poor condition can also contribute. Sticking within the recommended alcohol limits (14 units a week – about seven pints of beer or one and a half bottles of wine) spread over several days can cut your risk. So can eating a healthy diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables


How to cut your risk

Your gums protect your teeth and the structures that hold them in place. Gum disease started with the build-up of plaque – a combination of small food particles, mucus and bacteria. Plaque embeds itself in the spaces between your teeth, and between your teeth and gums. It’s sticky, so the acid produced by the bacteria stays in damaging contact with your teeth. Plaque can lead to inflammation (with bleeding when you brush your teeth) and possible infection – it’s also a common cause of bad breath.

It may seem bizarre, but gum disease has been linked to a wide variety of serious health problems including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. It’s even been linked with dementia As yet, while we know that people with gum disease are more likely to have other health conditions, we don’t know if the gum problems actually cause them. However, some experts think that the bacteria from plaque may get released into the blood, causing inflammation and long term damage.

So on the premise of ‘better safe than sorry’, looking after your gums has to be a good idea. And to look after your gums, you need to look after your teeth. Clearly that includes brushing with a fluoride toothpaste for two minutes twice a day, but don’t forget to floss (I use the little interdental sticks – much easier!) and have regular dental check-ups, too.

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