Covid-19, dentistry education and mouth cancer

26 October 2020
2 min read

When lockdown hit the UK, dentists closed, and head and neck cancer checks at patients’ routine dental appointments ceased to exist. Dentists are open again, though running a vastly reduced service and any form of mouth cancer check is no longer a priority.   

It is more important than ever to understand the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer and check yourself at least once a month. 

The lack of routine examinations means that the detection of malignant conditions may go undetected as in the case of retired army officer Bill Howarth, 67.

Bill was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer on the July 13, 2020. He realised there was a problem when a persistent sore throat and sore gums at the upper back of his mouth lingered; Bill described it, As if there was a tooth abscess present”. This feeling of discomfort began in March 2020 and after more than two months of trying different remedies and prescribed antibiotics, the pain continued. When Bill’s symptoms showed no improvement a month later, he was referred to a specialist at the hospital, where after several tests, from scans to biopsies, Bill was finally diagnosed with cancer. Prior to his diagnosis, Bill knew little to nothing about head and neck cancers – he had no education about the cause, symptoms and treatment.

Six weeks of radiotherapy and two weeks of chemotherapy treatment followed.  Bill describes the treatment as unpleasant and goes on to say, “I have lost my sense of smell and taste and this has also affected my hearing.”

In a sad twist of fate Bill is the partner of the mother of Immersify Education’s CEO, Chloe Barret. Chloe says “Bill’s diagnosis has been extremely upsetting to his immediate family. I think an overall feeling of shock has rippled through the people closest to Bill. When someone you care about is in pain, it is difficult not to be saddened and concerned.”

Bill and Chloe now understand more than most how important it is for everyone to be able to spot the early signs of head and neck cancers. Bill hopes his story will inspire others to seek advice from their dentist if any symptoms appear and believes the education of mouth/head and neck cancer delivered to students, professionals and the general public is absolutely critical to help to reduce late diagnosis.

Yewande Oduwole, a recently qualified dentist argues, “With Covid, patients were put in a difficult position – the lack of routine examinations means that the detection of malignant conditions such as oral cancer may go undetected.”

Megan Clarkson adds, “Many patients are unaware of oral cancer existence in their mouth due to its generally silent nature. Even with the gradual opening of dental services patients may still be worried about visiting the dentist due to the perceived infection risks.”

Dentist and president of the Mouth Cancer Foundation, Philip Lewis, is urging the government to listen to the repeated calls that thousands of cases may have gone undetected due to a reduction in dental appointments available, combined with people too fearful to attend routine practice appointments. He says “According to the Association of Dental Groups, 49 per cent of households have at least one adult who has missed or decided against visiting the dentist. That is almost 13m adults that have missed annual check-ups. Dentists are especially concerned about mouth cancer as routine check-ups are the key to early diagnosis. If this is not happening and the early warning signs go undetected, then mouth cancer rates will increase dramatically.”