Mouth Cancer

Mouth cancer is an important global healthcare problem. There are more than 300 cases of cancer of the mouth (oral cavity and pharynx) reported in Ireland every year. 

These cancers are more common in men than in women. However this is changing. The incidence rate of cancer of the mouth in women has increased significantly at a rate of 3% per year since 1994. It mainly affects older people although younger people are being diagnosed now. In Britain, the incidence of mouth cancer has increased faster than any other cancer in the past 25 years.

According to the National Cancer Registry in Ireland, roughly half of all mouth cancers and even less of cancers of the pharynx are diagnosed at an early stage. This can result in more complex treatment with greater impact on quality of life and overall survival. Whilst it depends on the cancer site we know that more than half of those treated will have good survival outcomes and this continues to improve each year.

Early detection of mouth cancer greatly improves the chances of survival. Dentists have a key role to play in the early detection of mouth cancer and in the prevention of the disease by identifying those patients who are exposed to risk factors.

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Mouth Cancer Awareness Day - Every Day @ Mint Dental

Mouth Cancer Awareness Day takes place in mid September every year when free mouth cancer examinations are offered throughout the country. Dr. Kelleher has been volunteering in the Cork Dental Hospital since the launch of the Mouth Cancer Awareness program. She incorporates a mouth cancer examination into all her checkups.

Mouth cancer examinations are quick and painless. Taking these 10 minutes could save your life.

How can I make sure that my mouth stays healthy?

Visit a dentist regularly even if you wear dentures. This is especially important if you smoke and drink alcohol.
When brushing your teeth, look out for any changes in your mouth or neck. Early warning signs include ulcers that do not heal within three weeks, red or white patches in the mouth, or other unusual changes in the mouth or neck.
When exposed to the sun, make sure to use the correct type of barrier cream on your lips.
Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. A good diet, rich in vitamins A, C and E, helps the body to protect itself from most cancers.

Avoid the risk factors for mouth cancer. These include:

  • Smoking tobacco – cigarettes, roll-ups, cigars, pipes or cannabis.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Using tobacco and alcohol together - this greatly increases your risk.
  • Excessive exposure to sunlight or radiation (for lip cancer).
  • Chewing tobacco, betelguid, gutkha and paan.
  • A diet lacking in fruit and vegetables.
  • Viral infections, e.g., human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV can be spread through oral sex.
  • If you are concerned about cancer, worried about symptoms or you just want to know more about how you can reduce your risk of getting cancer why not talk to a specialist cancer nurse on the National Cancer Helpline on Freefone 1800 200 700, 9am-7pm Monday-Thursday and 9am-5pm on Fridays.

You can also email the nurse at or contact us at

Symptoms of Mouth, Head & Neck Cancer

The symptoms of mouth, head and neck cancers depend on where the tumour is found. Some common symptoms include:

  • A sore or ulcer that does not heal
  • Difficulty or pain on chewing and swallowing
  • Sore throat, difficulty speaking or a hoarse voice
  • Changes in your breathing at rest
  • Unexplained loose tooth
  • A swelling or lump
  • Pain in the face or jaw
  • Earache or ringing in the ear or hearing problems
  • Numbness
  • Blocked or bleeding nose
  • White or red patches in the lining of the mouth or on the tongue that do not go away


First, visit Dr. Kelleher at Mint Dental or your family doctor if you are worried about any symptoms. We can examine you and do some tests. We can refer you to a hospital for more tests if we are concerned. You may be referred to a specialist doctor, such as a maxillofacial surgeon or an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist.

The specialist will discuss your symptoms and examine you again. He or she will inspect your mouth, throat, tongue, nose and neck using a small mirror and/or lights. Your neck, lips, gums and cheeks will also be checked for lumps.
The following tests can diagnose mouth, head and neck cancers.

  • X-ray
  • Nasendoscopy
  • Biopsy
  • Fine needle aspiration cytology


An X-ray of the bones of your face and neck allows your doctor to check for cancer. An OPG (orthopantomogram) is a special X-ray of the jaw and teeth.
Nasendoscopy: This test uses a small, thin flexible tube with a light called a nasendoscope to look at your nose and throat. Your throat will be numbed first. Then a tube is passed into your nose while a small mirror is held at the back of your throat. This allows your doctor to have a close look at your throat. The test is little unpleasant but only lasts a few minutes.


A biopsy is a sample of the abnormal cells taken from the affected area. These are then examined under a microscope in the laboratory. Your doctor can do the biopsy during a nasendoscopy using a very small needle. The biopsy will tell your doctor if the sample contains cancer cells and if so what type. In some cases, patients may need a general anaesthetic during a biopsy.

Fine needle aspiration cytology

This test uses a fine needle and syringe to get a sample of cells from a lump. It is then sent to the laboratory to see if any cancer cells are present. The test can be uncomfortable and the area may be bruised for short while afterwards.


The stage of a cancer describes its size and if it has spread to other parts of your body. By knowing the stage of the cancer, it helps your doctors to decide the best treatment for you. Mouth, head and neck cancers are very often divided into four stages:

Stage 1: This is a small tumour and found in one place only.
Stages 2/3: The disease has spread to other areas of your mouth, head and neck.
Stage 4: The disease has spread to other parts of your body further away. These are known as secondaries or metastases.

If the above tests show that you have cancer, you may need other tests. These tests will check if the cancer has spread.

  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • MRI scan
  • Ultrasound
  • Isotope bone scan