Belfast Telegraph

Call for more awareness as mouth cancer rates spiral

Civil servant Joanna May
Civil servant Joanna May
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Cases of mouth cancer in Northern Ireland are expected to almost double by 2035.

That is the alarming statistic revealed today by leading charity Cancer Focus NI and the British Dental Association.

Concerns over the growing number of cases have promoted a call for greater awareness over the early signs of the disease, which currently results in a terminal diagnosis for almost half of those found to have the disease.

At present an average of 233 people here are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year.

Many are diagnosed at a late stage, resulting in 95 of the 233 average dying from the disease.

Experts say many deaths could be avoided by heeding early warning signs and making sure people undertake regular visits to their dentist.

Cancer Focus NI and BDA have joined forces to mark Mouth Cancer Month in November by raising awareness of the early signs of mouth cancer.

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They say it is vital people seek medical help if they have any concerns.

Gerry McElwee, head of cancer prevention at Cancer Focus NI, said alcohol and tobacco use are major contributing factors.

"The main risk factors of mouth cancer are tobacco use and drinking alcohol, and together these account for around 75% of mouth cancers," he said.

"People who both drink and use tobacco are up to 30 times more likely to develop the condition. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is also a leading cause and the recent move to extend the HPV vaccine to include adolescent boys in Northern Ireland will save lives."

As with every type of cancer, he said an early diagnosis can be key to people making a full recovery.

"The message is clear: stop smoking, reduce your intake of alcohol, eat a healthy diet with at least five daily servings of fruit and vegetables, and remember that early diagnosis can really make the difference," Mr McElwee continued.

"Make sure you visit a dentist and check your mouth regularly - it might just save your life."

The British Dental Association said it is now aiming to ensure that mouth cancer features strongly in the new Northern Ireland Cancer Strategy.

Caroline Lappin, council chair of BDA NI, said chances of survival can improve by 90% if detected early enough, but added that awareness of the early signs of the disease must improve.

"Clearly public awareness of mouth cancer compared with other cancers is low," she said.

"This has got to change. It's alarming that around 70% of mouth cancers are detected at a late stage because people don't know the warning signs.

"This often results in lower chances of survival. However, early detection transforms survival chances to more than 90%.

"It's important to be 'mouth aware.

"Look out for any changes in the mouth such as an ulcer that doesn't heal or any unusual changes in the mouth, lips, head and neck.

"Dentists can play an important role in detecting changes so do visit your dentist regularly and seek professional help if you have any concerns."

For more information on mouth cancer visit www.cancerfocusni.org. Cancer Focus NI also provides the information and support Nurse Line to people worried about or affected by cancer.

For advice contact the Cancer Focus NI information and support Nurse Line on 0800 783 3339, Monday to Friday, 9am to 1pm, or by email at helpline@cancerfocusni.org.

'The consultant removed part of my tongue... it was a small price to pay'

Civil servant Joanna May, from Co Down, learned she had pre-cancerous cells on her tongue in December 2016.

"It all started about four years before that when I hurt my shoulder. I was prescribed anti-inflammatories, but I took a severe allergic reaction and my tongue swelled up," she said.

"After that I began to notice a stinging sensation in my tongue. I mentioned it to my dentist, who could see white spots. She wasn't sure what it was and referred me to the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

"I was lucky. I quickly got an appointment and was red-flagged so that I would be seen as a priority.

"I was in the system for nearly three years while I was monitored and had a number of biopsies done.

"I was diagnosed with oral epithelial dysplasia, an abnormal development of cells which is a pre-cancerous state. It can affect smokers and people who drink alcohol, or a combination of both, though I've never smoked and drank very little. I don't drink anymore. I'm just unlucky that my DNA had been kick-started into misbehaving.

"More recently, higher grade epithelial dysplasia was detected.

"The consultant decided it was time to remove part of the tongue.

"The operation went well and the surgeon was pleased. I still have regular checks, but everything has been clear since the operation.

"The only way it has affected me is that there are parts of my mouth that I can't reach with my tongue now, but that's a small price to pay.

"I'd tell everyone to make sure you go for your six-monthly dental check-ups.

"If you have what looks like mouth ulcers for more than three weeks, get it looked at.

"If you think anything is unusual, see your doctor."

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