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News / November 25, 2008

Mouth Cancer Week

by Guy Hiscott

To highlight the need for preventive action, the Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland (HPA), Ulster Cancer Foundation (UCF) and oral health promoters from the four Health and Social Services Boards joined together to raise awareness of Mouth Cancer Week, which ran last week.

Speaking about the initiative Dr Brian Gaffney, Chief Executive of the HPA, said: ‘Taking action on mouth cancer can be as simple as regularly visiting your dentist and making healthy lifestyle choices. The two primary risk factors associated with this disease are smoking and drinking alcohol to excess. Together these are believed to contribute to 80% of mouth cancer cases. In fact, people who smoke and drink to excess are up to 30 times more likely to develop the disease. However, smoking cessation is associated with a rapid reduction in the risk of oral cancers; the risk is halved within three to five years. We also know that eating five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day can help to protect against many cancers and this is important advice for preventing mouth cancer too.’

In Northern Ireland around 150 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year and so early detection and being aware of the warning signs is vitally important.

Gerry McElwee, Head of Cancer Prevention at UCF, said: ‘There are a number of key warning signs associated with mouth cancer which can show up in any area of the tongue, mouth or lips. Look out for mouth ulcers that have not healed after three weeks or red or white patches in the mouth as these may be early signs of mouth cancer. A swelling below the neck or chin, pain when chewing or swallowing and feeling that you have something in your throat that cannot be swallowed are also warning signs which should not be ignored. A key message from the campaign is ‘if in doubt – get checked out’ and we urge people who may have any of these symptoms to contact their dentist or GP without delay.’

While mouth cancer is more likely to affect people over 40 years of age, an increasing amount of young people are developing the condition.

Mr Ashok Songra, Consultant Surgeon in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the Ulster Hospital, said: ‘Mouth cancer and the treatment required can be traumatic for the patient. The treatment may affect functions such as speech, chewing and swallowing. Depending on the site of the cancer, treatment may result in disfigurement or loss of speech, for instance, which will of course be devastating for the patient. However, early detection increases survival chances, allows for simpler treatment and results in a better quality of life for the patient. It is extremely important that people of all ages are aware of what to look out for and have regular dental check ups.’

Mouth Cancer Week is co-ordinated by the British Dental Health Foundation and more information can be found by visiting the website:

If you are concerned about cancer, contact the UCF’s free information and support helpline on 0800 783 3339 between 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday or email