Oral cancer causes rising as cases rise in the UK: Oral Cancer Awareness Month


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The number of cases of oral cancer in the UK has risen by more than a third in the past decade to a record high, according to a new report.

The number of cases has more than doubled over the last generation and other lifestyle factors have been added to previous common causes such as smoking and drinking.

According to the Oral Health Foundation, 8,864 people in the UK were diagnosed with the disease last year – a 36 per cent increase from a decade ago, with 3,034 people losing their lives due to it within a year.

That’s a 40 percent increase in deaths in the past 10 years, and a 20 percent increase in the last five years.

These findings are part of the Oral Health Foundation’s new Oral Cancer UK 202 report, which was released in conjunction with the month of November for Oral Cancer Control.

In the early stages, symptoms of oral cancer can be subtle and painless, making it easy to miss.

It could be a mouth ulcer that does not heal within three weeks, white or red spots in the mouth, unusual lumps or swellings in the mouth, head, or neck, or any persistent hoarseness.

One in three oral cancers is found on the tongue and 23 percent are found on the tonsils.

Other places to check for oral cancer include the lips, gums, the inside of the cheeks, as well as the floor and roof of the mouth.

Nearly two out of three people have never checked their mouths for signs of oral cancer, even though it took less than a minute.

People are three times more likely to be screened for testicular or breast cancer routinely.

Oral cancer survival rates have barely improved in the past 20 years, in part because many cases are diagnosed too late. Slightly more than half of oral cancers are diagnosed in stage IV – the cancer is at its most advanced.

Dr Nigel Carter, CEO of the Oral Health Foundation, said: “While most cancers are declining, cases of oral cancer continue to rise at an alarming rate.

“Traditional causes such as smoking and heavy drinking are being quickly attached to emerging risk factors such as human papillomavirus (HPV).

The stigma around oral cancer has changed dramatically. It is now a cancer that really can affect anyone.

We have seen firsthand the devastating impact oral cancer can have on human life. It changes the way a person speaks, makes eating and drinking more difficult, and often changes a person’s physical appearance.

“During Oral Cancer Control Month, we will be working to raise awareness of oral cancer.

“We urge everyone to become more oral aware by being able to recognize the early warning signs of oral cancer and to be aware of common causes.

“Most importantly, if you notice anything unusual, please do not delay and seek help from a doctor or dentist.”

Charlotte Webster-Salter received life-changing news that she developed oral cancer when she was just 26. The former cabin crew member, who is now training to be a midwife, doesn’t fit the usual oral cancer patient – being an active young woman who doesn’t smoke.

But Ms. Webster Salter represents a growing number of young people being diagnosed with the disease.

Ms Webster Salter, who lives in Petersfield, Hampshire, said: “I had some ulcers for three to four years before I had [mouth cancer] proces.

“I wasn’t worried about them at first because I get jogging. I’ve been jet lag, travel all the time with my job, and ulcers are often a sign of celiac disease, which I have, so I keep that in mind.

“They came and went but always in the same area, they never went completely, but they used to flare up if I ran.

“They felt like the sore was doing it, but just a bigger spot and they started turning white, and they had the red color too, so they looked quite inflamed. I thought maybe it was an infection or something.”

As a precaution, Mrs. Webster Salter went to the dentist and inquired about them.

She said, “About a year before I had the operation, I went to the dentist and they said, ‘Well, I don’t really know what it is, it could be because you’ve been rubbing your teeth, so we advise you to probably straighten your teeth and have the wisdom teeth pulled out.'”

“So I did it. I paid for braces, had my wisdom teeth taken out and had really great teeth, but I still had ulcers.

“My mom kept telling me to go get her checked, so I went to my doctor who sent me for a biopsy.”

She was finally biopsied in April 2021 after the ulcer had significantly worsened. A biopsy showed that the ulcer was oral cancer.

And she added, “I went to the results and he asked me, is anyone with you today?” I looked at him and said, “That’s not good, is it?” He replied: No, it is not. I’m really sorry, I got cancer.

“I remember saying to him: What do you mean? Absolutely not, and I think I almost laughed. It was such a shock because otherwise I am a healthy person.”

Mrs. Webster Salter underwent a nine-and-a-half hour operation to save her life in which part of her tongue was removed. The piece that was removed was replaced with a muscle from her leg.

They also took a lymph node from her neck to check if the cancer had spread, which it had not.

As a result of the swelling from the surgery, she was fitted with an opening in the trachea, where a tube was inserted into the neck to aid breathing.

Ms Webster Salter said: “The tracheostomy was fitted for seven days, so my body didn’t swallow or breathe through my mouth for so long that your muscles often took a while to get back into it.

“I remember the first time they tried to get it out. They covered this hole so I could breathe from here and it wasn’t like that, and it wasn’t, I think my body wasn’t ready because it was like suffocation because I couldn’t breathe through my mouth.

“It was like I had a mouth full of straw or hay. It was very hard, very hoarse, very stuck. And I remember panicking, I was like no, I can’t, so they tried again the next day and then every day it got a little better and better.”

After the operation, Mrs. Webster Salter had to learn how to talk, eat and walk again through speech therapy and physical therapy, but she did not need any other treatment.

Ms Webster Salter added: “There is a stereotype of oral cancer. I was told ‘Oh, you’re too young’, ‘Oh my God, it wouldn’t be like that.’ But it can really happen to anyone, not just smokers.”

“People think you have to be like a really old man who smokes 50 a day, but you don’t. I took this little poster in the clinic to be like, ‘Oh my God, this is mouth cancer’ and by that time it was too late anyway” .

The goal of the Oral Health Foundation is to improve people’s lives by reducing the damage caused by oral diseases – many of which are completely preventable.

Oral Cancer Month continues throughout November.

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