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Increase In Mouth Cancer Rates Linked to NHS Dentist Shortage

mouth cancer

Lack of access to dentists is costing lives because mouth cancers are not being spotted or treated early enough, a health charity has told BBC News.

The disease killed more than 3,000 people in 2021 - up 46%, from 2,075 a decade ago, latest figures obtained by the Oral Health Foundation show.

And last year, a BBC News investigation revealed 90% of UK NHS dental practices were not accepting new adult patients. The government has announced plans to increase dental-training places by 40%. It also said the NHS was treating more people for cancer at an earlier stage than ever before.

Ray Glendenning, 64, thought a very painful swelling in his jaw was being caused by one of his teeth - but he did not have an NHS dentist. After being unable to register with an NHS dentist he finally paid £50 to see a private dentist, he was diagnosed with an aggressive tumour. He is convinced the decision saved his life. "The options were surgery or six months of palliative care," he says. "The options aren't options really - I didn't want to die."

Six months ago, just weeks after being diagnosed, Ray had 16 hours of surgery to remove the tumour and a new jaw was formed out of bone and muscle from his leg. He spent six weeks recovering in hospital before starting weekly radiotherapy sessions. He remains limited to a liquid diet and needs a walking stick.

"It's the system that's broken - not the individual dentists," Ray says.

"We're lucky we could afford to pay. People that don't have £50 could be dead."

Oral Health Foundation chief executive Nigel Carter says 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 adds. With all dental insurance plans from Get Dental Plans, check ups and hygienist visits are included. This is a vital component towards preventing oral health issues and catching more serious conditions such as mouth cancer before they develop.

There were 9,860 cases of mouth cancer in the UK in 2020/21 - up 12% on the previous comparable year, according to the Oral Health Foundation.

Early detection results in a roughly 90% survival rate, compared with 50% following delayed diagnosis. "Every dental check-up doubles as an oral-cancer screening," Eddie Crouch, who chairs the British Dental Association, says. And the crisis millions of people face accessing dentists "will inevitably cost lives".

"This condition causes more deaths than car accidents [cause]," he adds. Head and neck cancers are the eighth most common cancer in the UK. In England, more than two-thirds of mouth cancers are in men. Most cases are linked to smoking - but alcohol misuse and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection have been linked to the rise. About a third are on the tongue - but they can also be on the lips, gums and parts of the throat.

Symptoms of mouth cancer can include:

  • a mouth ulcer lasting more than three weeks

  • a red or white patch inside the mouth

  • a lump in the mouth, lips, neck or throat

  • pain inside the mouth

  • difficulty swallowing or speaking or a hoarse or croaky voice

How to lower the risk of mouth cancer:

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

  • Exercise regularly

  • Avoid drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week

  • Quit smoking and chewing tobacco, betel nut or paan

  • Get a vaccine to protect against HPV

If you would like to help protect the oral health of your workforce and improve their access to dental care, please contact us today to find out how a dental insurance plan can help. With dental check ups included in the price and some policies including mouth cancer treatment, is it time to add dental insurance to your employee benefits?


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