Mouth cancer

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is one of the rarer forms of cancer in the UK, accounting for just one in every fifty cancers. It mostly affects people over sixty, although younger people may get mouth cancer as a result of the human papilloma virus (HPV). There are around 6,200 cases of mouth cancer each year in Britain.

Mouth cancers usually form on the tongue, in the lining of the mouth, on the lips or on the gums. Very rarely mouth cancer will affect the salivary glands, the tonsils or the pharynx.

Symptoms of mouth cancer

Mouth cancer can cause a wide range of symptoms, most of which can also be caused by far less serious conditions such as minor infections. These symptoms only become a cause for concern if they persist for more than three weeks. Symptoms include:

  • Swellings within the mouth

  • Mouth ulcers

  • Red patches on the tongue or mouth lining

  • Painful swallowing

  • Neck pain

  • Swollen lymph nodes or glands

  • Changes in sense of taste

  • Loose teeth

If you experience any of these symptoms for more than three weeks, it is essential to get checked out by your GP, as early diagnosis is crucial for the treatment of mouth cancer.

The importance of early diagnosis

If mouth cancer is caught early, then there is a good chance that it can be cured. 80% of patients will live for five years or more after early diagnosis and treatment. However, if the cancer is not caught early, there is just a 20% chance of surviving this long, as the cancer can spread quickly, either directly, to the jaw bone, throat and skull, or indirectly, via the lymphatic system. Once the cancer reaches your lymphatic system, it can spread to anywhere in your body, including your lungs and other organs.

How is mouth cancer diagnosed

If your doctor suspects you may have mouth cancer, they will send you for a biopsy. This is a procedure in which a small sample of tissue is taken and examined for the presence of cancer cells. The tissue sample can be taken in three ways:

  • Punch biopsy – in which tissue is cut directly from the tongue or mouth

  • Fine needle biopsy – in which tissue and fluid are drawn from a lump or gland using a needle.

  • Panendoscopy – in which a tube is inserted down the nose to take a sample from the throat.

Mr Cascarini carries out all of these diagnostic procedures.

Risk factors in mouth cancer

The major risk factors for mouth cancer include:

  • Smoking – smoking 40 a day increases your risk by a factor of five
  • Alcohol – drinking excessively increases your risk by a factor of five
  • Drinking and smoking – combining heavy drinking and smoking increases your risk by a factor of almost 40.
  • HPV – this is a virus that can be present in the genitals and is passed on through intimate contact, even if intercourse does not take place.
  • Diet – it is thought that a diet high in red meat, processed foods and fried foods may increase the risk of mouth cancer.

Smoking cannabis, chewing qat and eating betel nuts are also thought to be risk factors, as is poor oral hygiene.