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A healthy lifestyle can protect against mouth cancer

A healthy lifestyle can protect against mouth cancer
Mouth cancer can affect the lips, tongue, cheeks and throat.

There are 4,400 new cases and 1,700 deaths every year in the UK, and those figures are increasing each year.

Survival chances are much improved with early detection, so the number of deaths could be greatly reduced if people were more aware of the symptoms.

The first sign of mouth cancer is often a non-healing mouth ulcer or a red or white patch in the mouth. It is important that you examine your own mouth on a regular basis. If you have a mouth ulcer that hasnít healed after three weeks, or you notice any unusual changes in your mouth you should visit your dentist as soon as possible for an examination.

Mouth cancer is most common in people over 40 who smoke or drink alcohol. It is also twice as likely to strike men as women.

However, the number of young people and women developing the condition has been increasing in recent years.

You can cut your risk of developing mouth cancer by living a healthy lifestyle.

If mouth cancer is diagnosed in its early stages it can respond well to treatment and the chances of a complete cure are good. This is why regular dental check-ups are so important.

Smoking is the most common cause of mouth cancer, and can increase your risk of developing the condition by several times. Research has found that switching to low-tar cigarettes does not help either as users are likely to inhale more smoke to compensate.

The risk is the same for users of all forms of tobacco, including chewing tobacco, paan, areca nut and gutkha.

How can I stop smoking?

  • speak to your pharmacist about nicotine replacement such as chewing gum or patches
  • contact a local group that can offer advice and support.

Although much less documented, drinking alcohol to excess poses almost as big a risk as smoking when it comes to mouth cancer.

In addition, because alcohol helps tobacco to absorb into the mouth, people who smoke and drink to excess are up to 30 times more likely to develop the condition.

The important thing is not the type of drink consumed (e.g. lager, spirits) but the total volume of alcohol.

It is recommended that men drink no more than 3-4 units per day and women drink no more than 2-3. (One unit is equivalent to Ĺ pint of lager, a single measure of spirits or a small glass of wine)

There are other things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing mouth cancer:

  • avoid excessive exposure to sunlight to help prevent lip cancer
  • eat green and yellow fresh fruit and vegetables every day - bananas, peppers, broccoli, beans and cabbage are good sources of beta-carotene that can help to prevent other cancers too
  • get medical advice if an ulcer or white or red patch does not clear after three weeks

Treating mouth cancer
The treatment will depend on the stage and site of the cancer and the effect of the treatment on functions such as speech, chewing, and swallowing.

Each treatment option can unfortunately cause unwanted side effects. So the quality of the patient's life can be drastically affected within the first few months of treatment.

However, treatment of mouth cancer is necessary and important and the chances of long-term survival are much better if the cancer is treated early.

Patients may need surgery to remove the cancer. If the cancer has spread, it may be necessary to remove parts of the jaw or neck.

The patientís stay in hospital will depend on the extent of the surgery and whether or not they have had skin or tissue grafts.

Surgery can be disfiguring and therefore distressing for the patient to cope with. The Organisation Changing Faces can provide invaluable advice and support for patients.

External radiotherapy
External radiotherapy is the use of high-energy rays from a machine with beam that can be aimed as accurately as possible to damage the cancer cells and stop them spreading.

It affects only the cells in the treated area. It can also be used after surgery to make sure that all the cancer has been removed.

External radiotherapy usually involves the patient visiting the hospital everyday for around six weeks, although this will vary according to the needs of the individual.

Implant radiotherapy
Implant radiotherapy involves putting metal rods or pellets containing radioactive material directly onto the cancer or the surrounding tissue.

The implant is left in for about seven days. During this time the patient has to stay in hospital, and time with visitors and care staff is limited, so that they are not exposed to the radiation.

In some cases, internal and external radiotherapy can be used together.

Radiation damages the salivary glands. Because of this, loss of taste and dry mouth is a common side effect. Fortunately, it is possible to relieve the symptoms of dry mouth using special medications.

Chemotherapy involves using specific drugs to kill the cancer cells.

These are swallowed or injected into the vein to enter the bloodstream and reduce the cancerous cells.

Chemotherapy can also be used to shrink the cancer before surgery.

The most common side effect of chemotherapy is feeling sick and being sick, and hair loss is also likely. Chemotherapy can also cause anaemia, dry mouth, mouth sores and people may become depressed.

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