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Opening up for mouth cancer

November is mouth cancer action month.  So what causes mouth cancer and what are we doing about it here at Worldwide Cancer Research?

How many people get mouth cancer and how bad is it?

Worldwide, more than 300,000 new cases of lip and mouth cancer were estimated to have been diagnosed in 2012.

More than 145,000 people were estimated to have died from lip and oral cavity cancer in 2012 around the world.  In the UK it kills around 6 people very day and death rates have increased by around 10% in the last ten years.

What causes mouth cancer?

There are some known risk factors including smoking, alcohol and infections that are heavily linked to the disease and account for 91% of cases.  Smoking tobacco accounts for roughly two thirds of cases. Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol is associated with a third of oral cancer cases (but don’t worry – using mouthwash that contains alcohol has no effect).

The human papilloma virus (HPV) is a big risk factor. It can be contracted through unprotected oral sex which is why it is linked to mouth cancer and many experts believe it could overtake tobacco as the main cause of oral cancer in the next ten years.

But these risk factors are not always the cause, it also depends on a person’s age and genetics - it can affect anyone.  That is why it is important to get any mouth ulcer that has been present for more than 3 weeks looked at and don’t ignore any red or white patches in your mouth – get it checked by your doctor or dentist.

What are we doing about mouth cancer?

We are currently funding Dr Salvador Aznar-Benitah at the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB) in Barcelona, Spain. Dr Aznar-Benitah is identifying and characterising the cells in tumours of the mouth and lip that allow the development of secondary tumours.

One of the main factors making tumours so dangerous is their ability to spread, known as metastasis.  If Dr Aznar-Benitah is able to identify how these tumour cells break away and start new tumours then his team, or others, could work on finding ways to stop the process from happening.  If we can stop tumours from spreading, successful treatment would be much easier to achieve.

Watch Dr Aznar-Benitah talk about his cancer research journey here.

Saving lives through oral cancer screening

Dr Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan, Chief of the Cancer Screening Group at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in Lyon, France received 9 years of Worldwide Cancer Research funding.

He showed that three rounds of screening for oral cancer reduces deaths by a third.  This was one of the first large-scale studies showing that simple screening methods can significantly cut mouth cancer deaths.  The work we funded is driving screening policies around the world, for example by helping to influence the American Dental Association guidelines on oral cancer screening, and helping to save lives, particularly in developing countries.

We are eager to stop lives being cut short by oral cancer.  To help this become a reality, we have recently awarded a grant to identify genetic changes when mouth cancer starts so that it can be diagnosed earlier.  This work will start in early January 2016, watch this space!