The death of Larry Hagman who played J R Ewing in one of my all time favourite programmes Dallas from complications related to throat cancer last month, reminded me as a dentist how important it is to be vigilant about oral cancer.
Sometimes when I talk to patients they are not even aware that you can get cancer in your mouth. Here at Langley Dental Practice we make it a routine that at every regular check up of our patients we ask about and record smoking and alcohol habits which are known risk factors for mouth cancer. We also try and regularly offer preventative advice about smoking and alcohol. These are some of the frontline things that we as dentists can do in order to tackle the problem of mouth cancer. Also at every examination we do a thorough check not only of the teeth and gums but also of all the soft tissues of the mouth to detect any possible signs or warnings of mouth cancer. The majority of mouth cancer cases are linked to consumption of tobacco and alcohol. When we look at our patient population we are looking not just at cigarettes but also amongst our ethnic minority patients we are looking at issues such as habits of chewing tobacco, betel quid, gutkha and paan.
People ask me what the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer are. A white or red patch presenting in the mouth is one of the early signs of mouth cancer. Another sign is an ulcer in the mouth sometimes painful, sometimes painless that does not heal normally after a period of around 2 to 3 weeks. I would urge any patients with these type of symptoms to present themselves to a dentist in order to get themselves examined. It may be something it may be nothing. ‘If in doubt get checked out’ is the mantra. Most of the time it will be nothing and sometimes patients feel concerned that they have wasted our time. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would rather have a dozen concerned patients who think they may have something wrong with them but are actually okay, rather than missing the one patient who really does have mouth cancer. Because it is that one patient who really does matter and who really does need our help.
Cancer is a disease that affects us all directly or indirectly whether within our family circle or amongst friends it is a condition that has a profound impact upon all those who come across it. Our role as dental professionals is to firstly educate our patients to look out for the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer. We must also focus on the factors that cause mouth cancer such as smoking and alcohol and issue strong preventative advice to our patients to reduce smoking and alcohol consumption. Finally we must be vigilant at all times when we examine our patients and look out for the signs and symptoms of potential mouth cancers. We must work together with our patients to do whatever we can to fight this disease.