The Dentist Magazine.

‘The bravest of the brave’ – partners and friends open up about the moment those closest to them were diagnosed with mouth cancer

Published: 29/11/2017

It is a type of cancer that is relatively unknown, but with a dramatic rise in the numbers of people being diagnosed, more of us than ever before are having a very personal experience with mouth cancer.

Latest figures reveal there are more than 7,800 new cases of mouth cancer in the United Kingdom a year. The number of diagnoses has increased by more than two-thirds (68 per cent) in the last 20 years, with experts projecting a further rise of a third (33 per cent) by 2035.

It means a growing number of us may know somebody who has been given the news that they have mouth cancer.

With November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month, a charity campaign which aims to raise awareness about the disease, coming to an end, family and friends discuss the devastating affect mouth cancer can have on a person’s life.

On Boxing day ten years ago, Tim Parson’s wife Rachel was diagnosed with mouth cancer. Tim, a firefighter from Coventry, recalls the day his wife gave him the life-changing news that had an effect on the whole family.

Tim says, “People say firefighters save lives and are brave but I didn’t feel very brave when I got the phone call from my wife to tell me she had mouth cancer.

“I hadn’t even heard of mouth cancer before. In those few seconds, our lives fell apart. All our plans for the future disappeared in an instant.

“In the months following Rachel’s operation, I held things together – looking after Rachel, our five children, work, and normality itself. But we didn’t talk about how we felt. We avoided our emotions for three months until our world began spinning out of control.  Rachel thought I didn’t care.

“I practically had a breakdown, at which point a doctor ordered time alone, just the two of us. We shared feelings. Our commitment to each other and our love was renewed.  We began the process of rebuilding the life that had been shattered by cancer.”

Rachel beat mouth cancer and today the family is stronger than ever.

“Today, life is good – and tomorrow is another day,” Tim adds.

“We will forever live in the shadow of cancer; every pain, mouth ulcer, or fatigue will bring worry and fear. But now, life is so much richer than before. Our love is deeper, we cherish time with family, and we seize each day given to us.

“It’s perceived that firefighters are brave but I can honestly say it’s those who survived mouth cancer, and bear their scars with courage, fortitude and dignity – they are the bravest of the brave.”

Father of one David Shakesby, from Loughborough, lost his fight with mouth cancer last Christmas.  David was diagnosed in 2015, weeks before his 40th birthday. His sister, Karen Chapple, speaks about the need for greater awareness of mouth cancer.

Karen says, “We didn't know anything about mouth cancer before David was referred to the hospital by his dentist and that view was shared by nearly all of our family and friends.

“I will never forget the reaction of a stranger we met at Rushcliffe Country Park for a sponsored walk we all did to raise awareness of the disease. He said ‘where is it? I have never heard of that’. It really hit home that this is a disease which very little is known about.

“Cancer can occur anywhere, including the mouth. It’s so important that more is known about mouth cancer and what we should all be looking for.”

The early warning signs of mouth cancer include mouth ulcers which do not heal within three weeks, red or white patches in the mouth and any unusual lumps or bumps in the mouth, lips, head and neck.

If you notice any of the above symptoms, visit your dentist or doctor immediately.

For Ben Atkins, a dentist from Manchester and trustee of the Oral Health Foundation, losing a friend to the disease has driven him to do all he can to spot case early in others.

Dr Atkins says, “I lost a very close friend to mouth cancer who I had diagnosed myself. As a dental professional, to go through that journey is horrific, but as a friend it’s even worse.

“Getting a phone call that a toothache is not going away for a patient, a friend, who is fully fit, makes you re-evaluate a lot of things in life.

“As a dental professional, I now spend more time working with patients to allay fears and worries. We are now accepting more patients, many of who haven’t been for a long time, so there is that increased risk of early signs and symptoms being unchecked.

“Mouth cancer is on the increase and its effects can be devastating, but with greater awareness we can beat the disease and live a good quality of life. Noticing unusual changes in the mouth and taking action on anything out of the ordinary is crucial. Do not leave any symptoms to go unchecked.”

Spotting mouth cancer early transforms the chances of beating the disease from 50 per cent to 90 per cent.

Smoking and drinking alcohol to excess remain the largest risk factors associated with mouth cancer; however, more cases are being attributed to the human papillomavirus (HPV), an infection caused by oral sex.

Mouth Cancer Action Month runs throughout November and is organised by the Oral Health Foundation and sponsored by Simplyhealth Professionals, with further support from Dentists’ Provident.

The charity campaign is aiming to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of mouth cancer so that more cases can be caught early.

Visit www.mouthcancer.org for more information about mouth cancer and how you can support November’s Mouth Cancer Action Month.