Katie Caines, a dental nurse from Grants House Dental Practise in Frome, has taken part in Mouth Cancer Action Month every year with the Oral Health Foundation, helping to raise awareness of mouth cancer. This November, she shares her story to urge professionals to educate their patients on the risk factors and signs.
Mouth cancer is one of the most life-changing experiences that a patient can go through. It can be heartbreaking for both the patient and their family and friends to receive this devastating news.
Katie Caines has experience with this both in the dental practice and in her own family. Her father, Tim Walwin, sadly passed away four years ago from mouth cancer, but both decided to tell their story posthumously to help others in the profession and public.
Katie said, “For 20 years, I heard about it (mouth cancer), but I never knew what it truly meant.
“In November 2017, my father had an ulcer, and he passed away in February 2019. He sadly will not be the last one, but he was the first one I experienced.
“I was doing an oral health educator course covering cancer when he first came to me. I looked at it and had a good inkling what it might be, when I questioned him further, he stated that the ulcer had been there for a few weeks.”
A check-up appointment is usually the first step to spotting changes in patients' mouths and starting that journey to diagnosis, treatment and hopefully, recovery. Cases of mouth cancer have risen consecutively for the last few decades, and this is a trend that does not appear to be slowing down any time soon.
According to the latest mouth cancer research by the Oral Health Foundation, public awareness of the major risk factors of mouth cancer is as low as nine per cent.
While awareness of the major signs and symptoms of mouth cancer may be more encouraging, it is still as low as 17 per cent.
These are shocking figures, but it also explains why more than 3,000 people in the United Kingdom lose their life to mouth cancer every year. Worryingly, that is eight people every day.
Many mouth cancers are not caught until stage three or four, making it much harder to treat. Increasing the need for chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and invasive surgery.
This also impacts a patient's quality of life afterwards, making it harder to eat, drink and socialise as before. More evidence is also emerging of patients suffering from debilitating PTSD following diagnosis and treatment of mouth cancer.
It is important that dental professionals ensure patients are aware of mouth cancer and know that any changes in their mouth need to be checked out by the team. Unfortunately, because awareness of the early warning signs is low, many patients often ignore signs and symptoms and do not seek advice until it is too late.
Even if it is not mouth cancer, an ulcer which keeps coming back could be indicative of another underlying health issue that needs to be investigated.
Keeping vigilant and checking their mouths regularly for any ulcers that have not healed within three weeks, red or white patches in the mouth, prolonged hoarseness in their voice or inability to stick their tongue out straight will help to raise patient awareness that these any of symptoms could be suspicious and a ‘red flag’ to go and visit their dentist.
Katie added, “I have shared with people and dental students some of the photos we took over the course of my father’s treatment so they can see how aggressive it can be.
“It is difficult because it can be such a visual cancer, my dad took everything in his stride, although it is a difficult road to be on. I hope that anyone who is going through similar times knows that there is support out there, though resources can be limited.
“I know that there are a lot of practices out there that can help bring people in. We as an industry need to stress early detection to try to get people early enough.
“There are practices running open mornings to try to reach out. We need to normalise checking for mouth cancer so that it is just like checking for breast cancer.”
During November, the Oral Health Foundation is appealing to the professional to join their campaign and help improve the public’s awareness of mouth cancer.
The charity aims to educate patients on how to perform self-examinations at home. Its website has simple, step-by-step instructions to guide them through the process, as well as other materials you can share with patients and local community groups.
It is so important to stress the importance of early detection – ‘by spotting mouth cancer early, we can beat it.’ Patients should be encouraged to come forward if they notice anything unusual, whether that is visiting their dentist or going to see their GP.
These messages go together with education and prevention, highlighting the risk factors associated with mouth cancer and encouraging healthier lifestyles.
Talk about mouth cancer with your patients when you are carrying out their mouth cancer check, and stress the importance of regularly checking their own mouth at home.
You can reinforce this message to patients through your website, social media, and email communications. Your participation really can make a difference.
A quick check for mouth cancer can save lives, improve the outcome for survivors and make an impact on lowering the incidences of mouth cancer for us all.
For more information visit www.mouthcancer.org