November 2016 is Mouth Cancer Awareness Month in the UK. Currently, almost 2,000 people in the UK die from mouth cancer every year. This is more than testicular and cervical cancer combined, and the disease is now on the rise. Mouth Cancer Awareness Month, organised by the Oral Health Foundation, aims to raise awareness of the symptoms of mouth cancer, so that sufferers can spot the signs earlier and so be treated more successfully.
The term mouth cancer covers any cancer affecting the lips, tongue, cheek or throat. The main causes of mouth cancer include the use of tobacco and alcohol. In some countries, the traditional habit of chewing tobacco is a common cause of mouth cancer, while in the UK the more likely cause is smoking. Unprotected sun exposure to the lips is another known cause.
Research has shown that mouth cancer is becoming more common. In the last year, almost 7,000 people have been diagnosed in the UK, which is an increase of more than a third compared to 10 years ago. Mouth cancer continues to become more common each year and is one of very few cancers which are predicted to increase further in the future. Researchers have therefore been keen to establish if there are any further, currently unknown causes, of this disease.
Recently, the link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and mouth cancer has become more widely discussed. HPV causes cervical cancer in women and can be spread through oral sex. Experts have speculated that this may explain why mouth, head and neck cancers associated with HPV have risen among young men under 40 in particular, and new research from the University of Derby has suggested that the UK may wish to consider vaccinating boys against HPV in order to reduce this risk.
HPV is made up of a group of viruses that affect the skin and moist membranes lining parts of the human body. These membranes are commonly found in the cervix, anus, mouth and throat. The viruses can cause genital warts, or, more rarely, abnormal tissue growth which leads to cancer. In the UK, girls aged 12-13 are now routinely vaccinated against HPV to help protect them from cervical cancer when they become sexually active. Boys are not given the vaccination as currently the risk of cervical cancer in women is higher than HPV-related mouth cancers in men.
The new research conducted by the University of Derby was aimed at young adults and questioned them regarding their lifestyle and sexual practices. A mouth swab was then used to detect any HPV infection. Their findings were consistent with earlier research, conducted in America, which found that HPV was linked both to smoking and to sexual habits.
To help reduce the risks of mouth cancer, experts suggest practising safe oral sex, particularly for those who have a high number of partners; cutting down on alcohol and tobacco use; and using sunscreen on the lips.
It is also important to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer so that it can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. Mouth ulcers that do not heal, white or red patches in the mouth, or any unusual lumps or swellings, can all be signs of mouth cancer and should be checked with a dentist or doctor. Having regular dental check-ups is also recommended as the dentist may spot changes that the patient has not noticed. Mouth cancer can be treated if detected early, so it is important to look out for its symptoms without delay.
For more information on mouth cancer, visit the Oral Health Foundation’s website.
If you, a member of your family or a friend have concerns about the management of cancer, our specialist team may be able to assist.