In the UK, mouth cancer cases have increased by 39% in the last decade, by 92% since the 1970s and it is one of a very small number of cancers which is continuing to see cases increase. Alongside this, survival rates have not improved in the same period and sadly more than 2,000 lives are lost to the disease every year. This is twice as many as both cervical and testicular cancers combined and much of this can be attributed to late diagnosis.
Early mouth cancer diagnosis transforms a person’s chances of beating the disease (from 50% to 90%) as it means treatment can be started sooner and potentially lead to a more positive outcome.
It is my belief, and a strong one which is shared throughout dentistry, that nurses and other medical professionals across primary care can play a major role in getting more mouth cancer cases diagnosed in the early stages.
Even though this is an issue which specifically affects the mouth and is typically something that gets picked up by a dentist, more and more people are turning to other health professionals, such as nurses, for oral health related issues and therefore it is crucial that nurses know what to be on the lookout for so that if a patient does present with any symptoms they can then refer them to get it checked out as quickly as possible.
The key signs that nurses should be alert to are; mouth ulcers (either painful or painless) which do not heal within a couple of weeks, red or white patches in a person’s mouth and any unusual lumps in the head or neck area.
Awareness of the risk factors is also vital as roughly 91% of all diagnoses are linked to lifestyle. Smoking and chewing tobacco are the leading causes of mouth cancer and excessive alcohol is linked to more than a third of cases in men and a fifth in women. Poor diet and HPV infection are also major risk factors.
Mouth cancer can have a devastating effect on a person’s life. Impacting on how they breathe, eat and drink, even their speech. Often this can lead to other problems such as nutritional deficiency, and depression. Difficulties in communication, low self-esteem, social isolation and the impact on relationships and career can cause as much distress as the cancer itself.
Being on the frontline of healthcare means nurses are well placed to play an integral part in catching potential cases of mouth cancer early and giving somebody the best chance of a successful treatment.
November marks Mouth Cancer Action Month, organised by the Oral Health Foundation, an annual charity campaign aiming to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer in order to get more cases caught early enough to make a difference to the chances of survival. Find out more information about mouth cancer and Mouth Cancer Action Month 2016 at www.mouthcancer.org.
Dr Nigel Carter , CEO of the Oral Health Foundation