Mouth cancer symptoms: Rise in deaths linked to NHS dentist shortage

Doctor examining man for mouth cancer. (Getty Images)
Catching mouth cancer early is key. (Getty Images)

A lack of access to NHS dentists could have led to an increase in mouth cancer deaths, a health charity has warned.

The Oral Health Foundation said that access to dentistry is in "tatters" and has highlighted many people with disease "will not receive a timely diagnosis" – when they need it most.

Mouth cancer – also known as oral cancer – led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people in the UK in 2021, up 46% from 2,075 a decade ago, figures obtained by the charity and shared with BBC News show.

Nine in 10 people will survive oral cancer – where a tumour develops in part of the mouth – when it is caught early, but this drops to a 50% survival rate when people are diagnosed late, according to the British Dental Association (BDA). With this in mind, it has also warned that accessing care at the right time can be the difference between life and death for some patients.

Mouth cancer can affect any part of the mouth, including the gums, tongue, inside the cheeks, or lips. How serious it is depends on the type you have, how big it is, if it has spread, and your general health.

Oral Health Foundation chief executive Nigel Carter told BBC News that dental check-ups "are a key place for identifying the early stage of mouth cancer".

"With access to NHS dentistry in tatters, we fear that many people with mouth cancer will not receive a timely diagnosis," he added.

With dentistry the second most common issue that people report to Healthwatch England, the patient watchdog has said access to care is the main issue reported within this. Earlier this year it also reported that in some extreme cases, people resort to DIY dentistry.

BDA chairman Eddie Crouch HAS called on the Government to "meaningfully" restore NHS dentistry,

"Every dental check-up doubles as an oral cancer screening," he said.

"When late detection can radically reduce your chances of survival, the access crisis millions face will inevitably cost lives.

"This condition causes more deaths than car accidents. With rates surging we need more than radio silence from Westminster."

Expressing concerns for both adults and children, Louise Ansari, chief executive at Healthwatch England, added, "We are also very concerned that issues in NHS dentistry are contributing to widening health inequalities, with those who can’t afford private dental care or without health insurance not being able to afford timely care.

"Ultimately, the dental system needs fundamental reform to increase and attract more dentists, improve oral health from birth, reduce cost and improve access when required.

"People want to sign up with a local NHS dentist in the same way they register with a GP, knowing they’ll be there for them in the long term to prevent, treat and maintain their oral health."

Who can get mouth cancer?

Man holding mouth in pain. (Getty Images)
Don't delay in seeking help from a doctor or dentist for symptoms of mouth cancer. (Getty Images)

Anyone can get mouth cancer, but the risk increases with age. Most people are diagnosed between 66 and 70, according to the NHS.

Mouth cancer can occur in younger adults, but it’s thought that human papillomavirus (HPV) infection may be responsible for the majority of these cases. The oral cancer is more common in men than in women, thought to be due to the fact that, on average, men drink more alcohol than women.

What causes mouth cancer?

Mouth cancer occurs when something goes wrong with the normal cell lifecycle, causing them to grow and reproduce uncontrollably.

While it's not always clear what the exact cause is, you may be more likely to get the disease if:

  • you smoke or chew tobacco, betel nut or paan

  • you drink a lot of alcohol

  • you have leukoplakia

  • you’ve been exposed to a lot of sunlight or sunbeds

  • you have a weakened immune system, for example, you have HIV or AIDS, or take immunosuppressant medicine

Mouth cancers have also been linked to changes in your genes and having some types of HPV infection in your mouth.

Mouth cancer symptoms

With a variety of possible causes, it's important to know what to look out for. In early stages, mouth cancer symptoms can be subtle and painless, making it easy to miss.

One woman, Charlotte Webster-Salter, 27, was told her mouth ulcers were caused by wisdom teeth and a hectic lifestyle before eventually being diagnosed with oral cancer, having to have part of her tongue removed and remade with muscle from her leg.

After her operation, she had to learn how to talk, eat and walk again through speech and physiotherapy, but she has luckily not needed any further treatment.

Watch: Woman has tongue 're-made' from leg muscles after battling mouth cancer

Remember mouth cancer can occur on the surface of the tongue, mouths, lips or gums. However, tumours can also occur in the salivary glands, tonsils and the pharynx (the part of the throat from your mouth to your windpipe), though these are less common.

Symptoms of mouth cancer, according to the NHS, include:

  • a mouth ulcer in your mouth that lasts more than three weeks

  • a red or white patch inside your mouth

  • a lump inside your mouth or on your lip

  • pain inside your mouth

  • difficulty swallowing

  • difficulty speaking or a hoarse (croaky) voice

  • a lump in your neck or throat

  • losing weight without trying

Preventing mouth cancer

Copy space shot of unrecognizable woman unpacking oranges and other fresh fruit and veg, from a reusable, mesh bag onto her kitchen counter, after returning from shopping at the farmer's market.
Some lifestyle changes can help with prevention. (Getty Images)

While cancer isn't always avoidable, the NHS suggests some ways to help lower you chance of getting it:

  • eat a healthy diet, including five portions of fruit and vegetables a day

  • exercise regularly

  • try to cut down on alcohol and avoid drinking more than 14 units a week

  • try to quit smoking

  • try to quit chewing tobacco, betel nut or paan

Where possible, make sure you attend regular check-ups, or if you notice anything unusual, seek help from your dentist or doctor. As a guide, see a GP or dentist if your symptoms don't improve within three weeks, especially if you drink or smoke.

To find out more, including diagnosis, treatment and living with it, visit the NHS website. For support, visit the Mouth Cancer Foundation or call its helpline on 01924 950950.

In light of concerns over NHS dentistry, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson told Yahoo Life UK, "We are making progress to boost NHS dental services. Compared to the previous year, 1.7 million more adults and 800,000 more children are receiving NHS dental care and we have announced plans to increase dental training places by 40%.

"The NHS is also treating more people for cancer at an earlier stage than ever before, and we have opened 127 community diagnostic centres to speed up checks, including for cancer."

Here it explains how it is helping more patients to get appointments.

Additional reporting PA.