Spotting the signs of oral mouth cancer in pharmacy

In the UK, mouth cancer cases have increased by 39% in the past decade and by 92% since the 1970s. In fact, it is one of a small number of cancers that is continuing to see cases increase. Alongside this, survival rates have not improved in the same period and, sadly, more than 2,000 lives are lost to the disease every year. This is twice as many as cervical and testicular cancers combined and much of this can be attributed to late diagnosis.

Early diagnosis of mouth cancer transforms a person’s chances of beating the disease, from 50% to 90%, because it means treatment can be started sooner and potentially lead to a more positive outcome.

It is my belief — and a strong one which is shared throughout dentistry — that pharmacists can play a major role in getting more mouth cancer cases diagnosed in the early stages. By being alert to the symptoms related to mouth cancer and offering quick and accurate advice, a pharmacist can play an important role in potentially saving somebody’s life.

The key signs that pharmacy staff should be alert to are mouth ulcers (either painful or painless) which do not heal within a couple of weeks; red or white patches in a person’s mouth; and any unusual lumps in the head or neck area.

It is crucial that a pharmacist knows what to be on the look-out for so that if a patient does present with any of these symptoms, they can then refer them to their dentist or doctor straight away to get it checked out as quickly as possible.

For example, many people choose to turn to their pharmacist for advice if they have a mouth ulcer which does not heal within a couple of weeks. Rather than advising a topical ulcer remedy, which could just mask the symptoms, it is important that pharmacy staff recognise that this could potentially be a sign of mouth cancer.

The public are putting community pharmacy in an excellent position to catch cases early and increase their chances of survival and pharmacists and their staff should use this opportunity to play an integral role in mouth cancer action.

November marks Mouth Cancer Action Month 2016, an annual charity campaign aiming to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer in order to get more cases caught early enough to make a difference to the chances of survival. During November, I am asking all pharmacy staff to be aware of the major signs and symptoms of mouth cancer and use them to raise awareness within their customers.

Find out more information about mouth cancer and Mouth Cancer Action Month at

Nigel Carter OBE

Chief executive officer

Oral Health Foundation

Last updated
Clinical Pharmacist, CP, December 2016, Vol 8, No 12;8(12):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2016.20201941

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