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Improving mouth cancer awareness this November

Written by: | Published:

Nigel Carter Dr Nigel Carter, Chief Executive, Oral Health Foundation

During every patient contact, nurses have the opportunity to identify patients at higher risk of mouth cancer and the ability to spot the early warning signs. Because early diagnosis of the disease is so important, these actions could ultimately save a patient’s life.

In the UK, cases of mouth cancer have doubled in the last 20 years. As the prevalence of the disease has increased so severely, it is vital that nurses and all healthcare professionals in a care setting, have a clear and effective plan when it comes to coming into contact with patients at higher risk of mouth cancer.

While mouth cancer can affect anybody, there are certain groups who are more at risk. The disease is more common in men over 40, however, more diagnoses in women and younger people are slowly shifting this demographical blueprint.

Those that smoke (cigarettes, pipes and cigars) and users of smokeless tobacco (areca nut, paan and gutka used mostly in south east Asian communities) are at particularly high risk of mouth cancer, as are patients who drink alcohol to excess also have an increased chance of developing mouth cancer. People who are sexually active are also at risk through the human papillomavirus (HPV) while fruits and vegetables can help lower the chances of getting mouth cancer.

By understanding a patient’s risk, nurses are able to offer advice for healthier lifestyles. This can lead to guidance on smoking cessation, help for alcohol addiction or with better nutrition. Nearly half of all patients in our charity’s research expect nurses to offer them advice on diet, alcohol consumption and smoking. We found that nurses are deemed a more important source for health information than dental hygienists or pharmacists.

Knowing the early symptoms of mouth cancer is also crucial. Mouth cancer can appear on the tongue, lips, gums, cheeks, head or neck. It could present itself as a non-healing mouth ulcer, or as red or white patches in the mouth. Any lumps or swelling around the mouth, head or neck, along with numbness or persistent hoarseness could be an indictor that a patient needs to be referred.

More than two-in-three (68%) UK adults would seek advice at their GP about the signs of mouth cancer, more than a dental practice or pharmacy, so it is important that practice nurses are vigilant as to the possibility of this outcome. If you are concerned about any patient that presents with these symptoms, you should arrange to refer them to a dentist for an emergency consultation.

November is Mouth Cancer Action Month. This charity campaign by the Oral Health Foundation is calling on the support of nurses to help raise awareness about the disease.

Patient awareness of the symptoms is as low as 16% while very few perform self-checks at home. This is especially concerning given that we also know that patients are unaware of the things that put them at greater risk of the disease.

Please speak to your patients about mouth cancer, especially those who fall into higher risk categories. Also encourage patients to be mouthaware and keep a look out for any unusual changes to the mouth. Make sure they are aware of the early warning signs and act quickly if they spot anything out of the ordinary.

Your support can help reduce the number of people who have their lives devastated by mouth cancer.

If you would like to know more about mouth cancer, or discover how you can support Mouth Cancer Action Month, visit

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