Mouth Cancer symptoms: Causes grow as HPV cases skyrocket in UK

The number of cases of oral cancer in the UK has risen by more than a third in the past decade to a record high, according to a new report.

The number of cases has more than doubled in the last generation and other lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking have been added to the previously common causes.

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According to the Oral Health Foundation, 8,864 people in the UK were diagnosed with the disease last year – up 36 per cent on a decade ago, with 3,034 people losing their lives to it within a year.

That’s a 40 percent increase in deaths in the past 10 years, and a 20 percent increase in the last five years.

These findings are part of the Oral Health Foundation’s new Case Report of Oral Cancer UK 202, which was released in conjunction with the November Oral Cancer Month.

In the early stages, the symptoms of oral cancer can be subtle and painless, making them easy to miss.

It could be a mouth ulcer that does not heal within three weeks, white or red patches in the mouth, unusual lumps or swellings in the mouth, head or neck, or any persistent hoarseness.

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One in three oral cancers are found on the tongue and 23 percent are found on the tonsils.

Other places to check for oral cancer include the lips, gums, inside of the cheeks, as well as the floor and roof of the mouth.

Nearly two out of three people never check their mouths for signs of oral cancer, even though it takes less than a minute.

People are three times more likely to be routinely screened for testicular or breast cancer.

Oral cancer survival rates have barely improved in the past 20 years, in part because many cases are diagnosed too late. Just over half of oral cancers are diagnosed at stage IV – when the cancer is most advanced.

Dr Nigel Carter, CEO of the Oral Health Foundation, said: “While most cancers are declining, cases of oral cancer continue to rise at an alarming rate.

“Traditional causes such as smoking and heavy drinking are rapidly being superseded by emerging risk factors such as human papillomavirus (HPV).

The stigma around oral cancer has changed dramatically. It is now a cancer that really can affect anyone.

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We have seen firsthand the devastating impact that oral cancer can have on human life. It changes the way someone talks, makes eating and drinking more difficult, and often changes a person’s physical appearance.

During Oral Cancer Month, we will be raising awareness of oral cancer.

“We urge everyone to become more aware of the mouth by being able to recognize the early warning signs of oral cancer and to be aware of the common causes.

“Most importantly, if you notice anything unusual, please do not delay and seek help from a doctor or dentist.”

Charlotte Webster-Salter received the life-changing news that she had developed oral cancer when she was just 26 years old. The former cabin crew member, now training to be a midwife, is no match for the typical oral cancer patient – being an active young woman who does not smoke.

But Ms. Webster Salter represents a growing number of young people being diagnosed with the disease.

Ms Webster Salter, who lives in Petersfield, Hampshire, said: ‘I’d had some sores for three to four years before I had one. [mouth cancer] proces.

“I wasn’t worried about them at first because I get runny noses. I’m jet lag, I travel all the time with my job, and ulcers are often a sign of celiac disease, which I have, so I keep that in mind.

“They came and went but always in the same area, never completely gone, but they used to flare up if I ran.

“They felt like the sore does, but just a bigger spot and they were starting to turn white, and they had red too, so they looked quite inflamed. I thought maybe it was an infection or something.”

As a precaution, Mrs. Webster Salter went to the dentist and inquired about them.

She said: “About a year before I had the procedure, I went to the dentist and they said, ‘Well, I don’t really know what it is, it could be because you’re rubbing your teeth, so we’d advise you maybe get your teeth straightened and have your wisdom teeth pulled’.”

So, I did it. I paid for braces, had wisdom teeth extracted and had really great teeth, but I still had cankers.

“My mom kept telling me to go get checked out, so I went to my doctor who sent me for a biopsy.”

She finally had her biopsy done in April 2021 after the ulcer got significantly worse. The biopsy showed that the ulcer was oral cancer.

She added, “I went to the results and he asked me, ‘Do you have anyone with you today?'” I looked at him and said, “It’s not good, is it?” He replied: No, it is not. I’m really sorry, I got cancer.

“I remember saying to him, ‘What do you mean? Absolutely not,’ and I think I almost laughed. It was quite a shock because I’m otherwise a healthy person.”

Mrs. Webster Salter underwent a life-saving nine-and-a-half-hour operation in which part of her tongue was removed. The removed piece was replaced with muscle from her leg.

They also took a lymph node from her neck to check if the cancer had spread, which it had not.

As a result of the swelling from the surgery, she was fitted with a tracheostomy, where a tube was inserted into the neck to aid breathing.

Ms Webster-Salter said: “My tracheostomy was fitted for seven days so my body hasn’t swallowed or breathed through my mouth for so long that it often takes a while for your muscles to get back into it.

“I remember the first time they tried to get her out. They covered this hole so that I could then breathe from here and it wasn’t like that, I guess my body wasn’t ready because it was like suffocating because I couldn’t breathe through my mouth.

“It was like I had a mouth full of straw or hay. It was so hard, so hoarse, so stuck. And I remember panicking, I was like no, I can’t, so they tried again the next day and then every day it got a little better and better.”

After the operation, Mrs. Webster Salter had to learn how to talk, eat and walk again through speech and physiotherapy, but she did not need any other treatment.

Ms Webster-Salter added: “There’s a stereotype of oral cancer. ‘Oh, you’re so young’ I’m told, ‘Oh my God, it won’t be like that.’ But it really can happen to anyone, not just smokers.

“People think you have to be like a really old man who smokes 50 a day, but you don’t. I took that little sticker off at the clinic to be like, ‘Oh my God, that’s mouth cancer’ and by then it was too late anyway.” .

The goal of the Oral Health Foundation is to improve people’s lives by reducing the harm caused by oral diseases – many of which are entirely preventable.

Oral Cancer Month runs throughout the month of November.



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