Mouth Cancer - What Can You Do?
Mouth Cancer - Prevent, Reduce, Survive: What can you do?
As Irish National Mouth Cancer Awareness Day approaches, I am finishing my series of articles on Mouth Cancer with a discussion on risk factors for the disease and some things you can do to reduce your chances of having mouth cancer or reduce its effects if you.
In the first article, I described how it was the sixth most common cancer in the world, and in the UK it's one of the 20 most common cancers generally - more than cervical cancer and thyroid cancer combined.
In the second article, I explained what cancer is, and why it's a serious disease generally, and the particular problems with mouth cancer. I also explained that compared to most other cancers, mouth cancer should be one of the easiest to detect by a simple visual inspection.
Reducing the risk
There are some risk factors for mouth cancer that you have no control over. This is the same for many diseases, so you can't do much about them except be aware of them and decide if that means you need to put more effort into some other aspect of disease prevention.
- Age - that just keeps changing every birthday, but given the alternatives getting older is pretty good in my book
- Sex - that was decided before you were born
- Ethnic background - you can't choose who your parents were
Essentially for mouth cancer there is a huge variation in these things, but it would be more common in men (especially in French men compared to other European countries), more common in older people (but I won't be putting a figure on what means "older" here, there is an increasing trend in the disease appearing in young people) and more common in certain ethnic groups (but ethnic groups have different cultural attitudes, habits and activities that might affect anyone's chances of getting a particular disease, so you have to allow for that before thinking it's just inherited risk). All of this stuff can be confusing so focus on the things you can have some control over:
Like pretty much any other disease, mouth cancer has some risk factors that you can exert some control over by choosing what you do with your body. According to UK Cancer Research, about 9 out of 10 cancers have a link to lifestyle or environment.
- Smoking - you guessed it, the more you smoke, the more likely you are to have this illness
- Alcohol - yep, that too, the more you drink the more likely you are to have mouth cancer
- Smoking and drinking - well, that seems obvious, but actually when scientists looked into this, it turns out that combining tobacco and alcohol has a multiplying effect on the appearance of mouth cancer, well beyond what you'd expect from just adding up the risks. They seem to boost the danger of each other
- Tobacco - well, you'd think that comes under smoking but some people chew it too and that increases their risk of the disease
- Sunshine - we need a bit of it for general health, but it can increase the chances of some cancers, particularly on the lip so if you have an outdoor lifestyle a bit of sunblock is a good idea
- Poor Diet - the more fresh fruit and vegetables you eat, the lower your risk
- Viruses - there is a particular virus, part of the same virus family that causes warts, that can increase the risk of mouth cancers
- Immune system abnormality - either due to diseases or medicines that alter the immune system (which you might have to take after a transplant for instance) make the disease more likely
- Chewing betel quid, areca nut, paan - these are things like chewing tobacco that are more common in some asian countries, but would be pretty rare in Europe in the wider community. They are believed to contribute to the colossal incidence of mouth cancer in some countries where they are used
- Also, anyone who has had a previous history of mouth cancer is much more likely than the general public to have a new mouth cancer appear. Not exactly a lifestyle choice, but something you can be aware of and make decisions about.
Some people think that mouthrinses are a risk factor, some disagree. Traditionally they contained a relatively high percentage of alcohol and are held in the mouth for much longer than any liquid you intend to swallow, so you can see why some people are worried about them. Given that alcohol-free mouth rinses are widely available this shouldn't be top of your list of concerns if you still run any of the other risk factors above.
Even if you sorted out all of these things, you don't become immortal! You may still have a chance of mouth cancer occurring so the next stage is to look out for the disease. Since the mouth is reasonably easy to see, this should be easier than spotting most other cancers.
Things to look out for
- Sores or ulcerations (breaks in the lining of the mouth) that don't heal up in 2-3 weeks
- Lumps or swellings in the mouth or neck
- Red areas, white areas, speckled areas on the lining of the mouth or cheeks
- Difficulties swallowing, chewing, moving the tongue, speaking (including hoarseness)
- Numbness or altered sensation in the mouth
The best person to look for mouth cancer, particularly in the early stages is a dentist.
A dentist has
- A big light specially desiged for looking in your mouth
- Small mirrors for looking around your mouth
- Plenty of knowledge about what mouths are supposed to look like normally
- Plenty of knowledge about what mouth cancer looks like
- Plenty of knowledge about things that aren't mouth cancer but might still look abnormal
- The phone number and address of specialists to discuss any problems with
So if there was ever a reason to have a regular visit to the dentist, that was it.
And here's the only statistic you need to realise in the article
Early detection and treatment of the disease means you are more likely to survive it. In some cases this could be 500% more likely.
Sadly most people don't present until late in the disease process and their survival rates are poor, and their treatments are much tougher. According to some studies, the overall likelihood of surviving this disease hasn't improved in 20 years - not because treatments haven't got better, but because more people are suffering from it, but still presenting too late.
Irish National Mouth Cancer Awarenes Day
Five minutes to save a life
For one day a year, many dentists across Ireland will offer free mouth cancer screening to people - even if they aren't a patient at that dentist's practice. If you want to find out more about it, and if a dentist in your area is participating go to :
At Swords Orthodontics we'll be offering free mouth cancer screening on the day, if you'd like to receive a quick, painless screening for this disease, please make an appointment by calling 01 810 7622.