Mouth Cancer: causes, symptoms and the impact of delayed diagnoses

Leonie Millard
Leonie Millard

Published: November 1st, 2022

6 min

Mouth Cancer Action Month is held in November every year and is supported by the Mouth Cancer Foundation and the Oral Health Foundation.

Mouth cancer is the 6th most common cancer in the world, but it's much less common in the UK. Around 8,300 people are diagnosed with mouth cancer each year in the UK, which is about 1 in every 50 cancers diagnosed.

Mouth cancer, also known as oral cancer, is where a tumour develops in a part of the mouth. It may be on the surface of the tongue, the inside of the cheeks, the roof of the mouth (palate), the lips or gums.

Tumours can also develop in the glands that produce saliva, the tonsils at the back of the mouth, and the part of the throat connecting your mouth to your windpipe (pharynx). However, these are less common.

What Causes Mouth Cancer?

Tobacco use is still considered the main cause of mouth cancer. According to the World Health Organisation, up to half of current smokers will die of a tobacco-related illness - including mouth cancer. Tobacco users are 6 times more likely to develop head & neck cancer.

Alcohol is another common cause of mouth cancer. Drinking to excess can increase the risk of mouth cancer by four times.

Experts suggest the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), transmitted through oral sex, could overtake tobacco and alcohol as the main risk factor within the coming decade.

The symptoms of mouth cancer include:

  • mouth ulcers that are painful and do not heal within several weeks

  • unexplained, persistent lumps in the mouth or the neck that do not go away

  • unexplained loose teeth or sockets that do not heal after extractions

  • unexplained, persistent numbness or an odd feeling on the lip or tongue

  • sometimes, white or red patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue These can be early signs of cancer, so they should also be checked

  • changes in speech, such as a lisp.

It is important that dentists diagnose and treat oral cancer quickly to reduce the risk of complications. If you get an early cancer diagnosis, there is a reasonable survival rate with 74 per cent of patients still alive after five years.

Treatment initially entails removing as much cancerous tissue as possible. If your cancer has been discovered early it may be treated with surgery alone, removing the whole tumour and a little healthy tissue around it to prevent cancerous cells being left behind.

More often if surgery is recommended it will be followed by radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or both. As well as removing the tumour it may also be necessary to remove the lymph nodes in the neck to stop the cancer spreading. Patients with advanced cancer may need to have quite a lot of diseased tissue removed and replaced with grafts taken from other parts of the body.

After treatment is complete you should regularly attend your dental practice for ongoing care.

If a dentist or doctor has failed to detect mouth cancer at an early enough stage or has failed to refer you or your loved one or provided appropriate treatment, then you may be able to bring an oral cancer dental negligence compensation claim. A dentist should be able to see the signs of oral cancer and carry out assessments properly. If they don't, you can be at risk of further health problems.

If you would like to discuss making a claim for compensation as a result of a delayed diagnosis, mistreatment, or failure to diagnose oral cancer by a dentist or doctor please complete our online enquiry form or get in touch with Leonie Millard using the contact details below.

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