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Can I see a dentist for oral cancer screening?

Oral cancer is the sixth most common form of cancer in the UK, with around 8,300 people diagnosed every year. Oral cancer also has a high mortality rate if detected late, with the survival rate five years after late diagnosis being around 50%. Early stages of oral cancer are hard for people to detect themselves and there is no national early screening in the UK. However, it is a cancer where early diagnosis is beneficial. Spotting mouth cancer early boosts chances of survival from 50% to 90%.

What Is Oral Cancer? Oral cancer is a form of the disease whereby a tumour develops in an area of the mouth, typically on the surface of the tongue, inside the cheeks, the lips or gum or roof of the mouth. In less common cases, tumours can also develop in the saliva-producing glands, the tonsils or the pharynx (part of the throat).

Why Is Oral Cancer Difficult To Detect? Successful treatment of oral cancer is strongly linked to early detection and for anyone at home going through their daily dental routine of brushing and flossing the initial signs may not be apparent. In the early stages, there is often no pain and any visible signs may be extremely hard to spot – these could be small patches of different colour in the mouth tissues, which may not be noticeable to the untrained eye. If you’re not experiencing pain in the mouth, then you are unlikely to look for any sign that something is abnormal.

Warning Signs To Look For Oral cancer is difficult to detect in the early stages, as there are no obvious symptoms to look out for, but anybody who has one or more of the following symptoms should seek a dental appointment:

  • A mouth sore or ulcer that does not heal within three weeks

  • Lumps or swelling in the mouth, head or neck

  • Inexplicable difficulty in chewing or difficulty moving the jaw or tongue

  • Extreme sore throat and hoarseness that lasts for several weeks

  • New tooth mobility (for instance not caused by impact or gum disease)

  • White or red patches in the mouth

  • Ongoing pain in the mouth

Risk Factors Oral cancer mostly impacts those over the age of 50, and it may commonly be associated with people who have smoked for much of their life, however non-smokers can also be affected. Around 4% of all diagnoses are for those under the age of 40. The human papillomavirus (HPV) contributes to a growing percentage of oral cancers, particularly in areas such as the oropharynx, tonsils and base of tongue. HPV is linked to around three in four (73%) oropharyngeal cancers and more than one in ten (12%) oral cavity and hypopharynx cancers. Now the HPV vaccine is offered to children between the ages of 12 and 13 as part of the NHS vaccination programme but it is also recommended for men and women up to and including the age of 45 in order to help protect them against these diseases. Anyone up until age 25 is eligible to receive the vaccine for free on the NHS.

Other risk factors include:

  • Smokeless tobacco (i.e. chewing tobacco) & environmental tobacco smoke. Mouth cancer risk is 87% higher in never-smokers who have ever been exposed to ETS at home or work, compared with unexposed never-smokers.

  • Alcohol – drinking more than 10 units of alcohol a week could be increasing the risk of mouth cancer by 81%.

  • Infection – Mouth cancer risk is around twice higher in people with HIV/AIDS, compared with the general population.

The Importance Of Seeing Your Dentist Routine dental health reviews not only help to spot and treat signs of decay, plaque build-up and early onset gum disease, but your dentist is also the professional perfectly placed to identify early signs of oral cancer. Every dental examination commences with an extra-oral and intra-oral examination, evaluated in conjunction with your medical history and lifestyle, to determine whether you are at risk of mouth cancer. These appointments are also a chance for our patients to raise any concerns they may have such as a lump, persistent pain or any other symptom that might suggest a health concern. A dentist may not be able to prevent someone from suffering from cancer, but they can spot concerns early on and make the immediate appropriate referral.

Dental Appointments During Covid-19 Missed dental appointments are a concern in normal times; during the Covid-19 pandemic they became a huge problem. It is estimated that 19 million appointments were missed in the UK in 2020, mostly routine appointments where any signs of oral cancer could have been quickly checked for. On a society wide level there is an inevitability that these missed appointments will lead to many thousands of cases of oral cancer being found later than otherwise would be the case. This will force a further huge burden on the NHS and other healthcare resources. On an individual level, there will be so many patients who have a cancer diagnosed at a more advanced stage than could have been the case. It is a sad fact, that their long term chances of survival will be negatively impacted. We urge our patients to maintain their routine appointments; here at The Hermitage Dental Practice to ensure that your oral health is well maintained. If you haven't been in to see us since before the pandemic (or longer), we are currently accepting new patients and will be able to accommodate you. Focussing on a specific form of cancer can lead to concerns, but it should be pointed out that a standard ulcer or sore in the mouth is not always reason to panic. However, if you are ever in doubt, please don’t hesitate to contact us on 01530 510533 to arrange an appointment.

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