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THE C WORD: Speaking to patients about mouth cancer? – Dr Nigel Carter OBE


  Posted by: The Probe      9th November 2018

With cases of oral cancer increasing, Dr Nigel Carter, CEO of the Oral Health Foundation, explains the urgency of speaking about the disease with patients.

The word cancer has a stigma to it. It’s not an easy subject for us to speak about – and definitely not an easy one to broach with a patient who is not expecting to hear it when they sit in the dentist chair for a routine check-up.

But it’s important to recognise that people are now less afraid of cancer as it is no longer seen as an inevitable death sentence

During every check-up we should all be carrying out an inspection for mouth cancer, but worryingly, far too many of us do not tell a patient that we are doing so.

In our own survey, only about one in four members of the public claim they have ever discussed mouth cancer with a dental professional. The landscape of how we approach mouth cancer must change, as the more we speak about it, the more lives we can save.

One of the key themes we are promoting in the lead up to this year’s Mouth Cancer Action Month in November is that a 45 second check can help to save a life. What we would like to see is dental professionals normalising talking about mouth cancer; before you do the check just mention that you are going to do it, don’t be afraid.

If they have questions, that is fantastic. You are starting the conversation. They will tell their friends and family about it, the word will spread, and more people will find out about this disease, what to look out for and what to do about it.

From this point, it is only a tiny hop to self- examination at home and the 45 seconds which could save their life.

You can’t hide

Mouth cancer cases are on the increase globally. In the UK alone, mouth cancer cases have reached almost 8,000 cases per year in the UK for the first time ever. It is now the 14th most common cancer in Britain and bucks the overall cancer trend by continuing to have increased incidence: Mouth cancers in the UK have increased by around a third (34 per cent) in the last ten years alone. If we compare these figures to three decades ago, rates have risen by almost 90 per cent.

With this increase, it is becoming almost inevitable that dental professionals will encounter a patient with a potential mouth cancer at some time during their career.

The latest GDC UK registrant report of dentists and DCP’s says there are 107,052 registrants in the UK (40,953 dentists and 66,099 DCP’s) as of 2015. Latest population figures in the UK mean there will be approximately one case of oral cancer per 8,444 people. So, assuming every person visits the dentist once a year, approximately one dental professional in every 13 will encounter a patient with oral cancer every year.

A practice will have multiple dental professionals working for it at any one time so the likelihood of a practice having a patient with oral cancer is even higher. With cases continuing to increase, a comprehensive understanding of oral cancer is vital. Being comfortable in identifying the most at-risk patients, along with the early signs and symptoms, will equip you well in making a diagnosis as early as possible. This is crucial for a patient’s survival chances and speaking about it will make it all possible.

Start the conversation this November

You are probably already aware that November is Mouth Cancer Action Month, our annual campaign to get everyone talking about mouth cancer. We want to increase the general public’s knowledge about mouth cancer, to help them to recognise any changes which occur in their mouth, and how to act as quickly as possible. Mouth Cancer Action Month is all about saving lives through early detection.

As cases of mouth cancer have increased, so have lives lost to the disease. This is almost always due to late diagnosis. Early diagnosis and resulting treatment can improve a person’s chances of survival to around 90 per cent and immensely improve quality of life compared to 50 per cent in late diagnosis.

Our blue-ribbon appeal is a small but effective a way of supporting the campaign, by wearing a blue ribbon you are displaying your support for everyone else to see. Our campaign cannot survive without the help of the dental profession, having a ribbon box in practice is a quick way of bringing the campaign to more people while helping to raise vital funds too.

By starting the conversation early, we can help put a stop to this. Don’t be afraid of the ‘C’ word.

Get involved now

By supporting the campaign, you and your team can make a difference just by looking in someone’s mouth and interacting with your patient – something you do every day. With the full support of all of the dental team we will hopefully start to see this devastating disease start to decline.

This year, we want to reach more people than ever and are encouraging you to offer free visual oral health examination events for patients or local groups. This is great way to support your local community, promote awareness of the illness and help develop the profile of your practice.

Show your support for Mouth Cancer Action Month at

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