Bite back at mouth cancer

World Cancer Day takes place each year on February 4th. And while you may be aware of the signs of some of the more common types of cancer – such as breast, lung and prostate cancers – how often do you check yourself for mouth cancer?

This year, the Mouth Cancer Foundation is encouraging everyone to get into the habit of carrying out a simple head and neck cancer check – not just once, but once a month. Called Bite Back at Mouth Cancer, the check was developed by consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon Mahesh Kumar and dentist Philip Lewis. It’s designed to make you familiar with the signs to look out for – which means you can act sooner – and can be carried out by anyone at home, at any time.

“It is recommended that the self-check is done once a month after teeth have been cleaned and by everyone over the age of 16 years,” says GP and TV doctor, Dr Dawn Harper.

“It takes less than two minutes. To carry out the mouth test all you need is a mirror, good light source and clean fingers. It is that simple. At each step you are inspecting and feeling for any lumps, red or white patches, changes in colour or texture, lingering ulcers or anything unusual.”

How to do the check

Face: Look at your whole face. Are there any swellings you haven’t noticed before? Inspect your skin. Has anything changed recently? Have moles become larger or started to itch or bleed? Also turn your head from side to side (this stretches the skin over the muscles making lumps easier to see).

Neck: Run your fingers under your jaw and feel along the large muscle either side of neck using the balls of your fingers. Are there any swellings? Does everything feel the same on both sides?

Lips: Use your thumb, index and middle fingers to feel the inside of your mouth. Pull your upper lip upwards and bottom lip downwards to look inside for any sores or changes in colour. Use your thumb and forefinger to feel around and inside your lips checking for any lumps, bumps or changes in texture.

Gums: Use your thumb and forefinger on the inside and outside of your gums, working your way around the gums to feel for anything unusual.

Cheeks: Open your mouth and pull your cheeks away with your finger, one side at a time, to look inside. Look for any red or white patches.  Use your finger in your cheek to check for ulcers, lumps or tenderness. Repeat on the other side. Your tongue can be helpful to locate sore areas, ulcers or rough patches.

Tongue: Gently pull out your tongue and look at one side and then the other. Look for any swelling, ulcer or change in colour. Examine the underside of your tongue by lifting the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth.

Floor of mouth: Lift your tongue up and look underneath, then look at the floor of your mouth for any colour changes that are unusual. Gently press your finger along the floor of your mouth and underside your tongue to feel for any lumps, swellings or ulcers.

Roof of mouth: Tilt your head back and open your mouth wide to check the roof of your mouth. Look to see if there are changes in colour or ulcers. Check for changes in texture with your finger.

“Make a note of anything unusual,” advises dentist Philip Lewis. “If you have recently had a cold, sore throat, ulcer or swollen glands, bitten or scolded yourself for example, these should heal within three weeks. If you have any concerns, visit your dentist or doctor to see if you need specialist advice.”

About mouth cancer

According to the Mouth Cancer Foundation, around 60,000 people in the UK will be diagnosed with mouth cancer during the next decade. The main cause is considered to be tobacco, with drinking too much alcohol also a risk factor (if you smoke and drink, you may be up to 30 times more likely to develop mouth cancer than someone who doesn’t). And while mouth cancer is twice as common in men as in women, more women are currently being diagnosed with the disease. Poor diet is also linked to a third of all cancer cases.

Cancers can develop in any part of the mouth, tongue and lips, as well as in adjacent areas such as the throat, salivary glands, pharynx, larynx and sinuses. Oral cancer are also often painless, so it’s important to know the signs to look out for, including the following:

  • An ulcer or white or red patch anywhere in the mouth that does not heal within three weeks
  • A lump or swelling anywhere in the mouth, jaw or neck that persists for more than three weeks
  • Difficulty in swallowing, chewing or moving the jaw or tongue
  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
  • A feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • A chronic sore throat or hoarseness that persists more than six weeks
  • An unexplained loosening of teeth with no dental cause.

If you’ve noticed any of the above signs, make an appointment right away to see your dentist. If you’re not sure it’s anything to worry about, your pharmacist can also give you advice and refer you to your dentist if necessary.

Your local Careway pharmacy also sells everything you need to keep your teeth and gums healthy. Find your nearest Careway pharmacy by using our Pharmacy Finder.

For further information about mouth cancer, visit