The self-check that could save your life

Dr Elizabeth Marsh, Associate Professor in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Derby,explains how a simple self-screening check could help catch head and neck cancer early.

Today (27 July) is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Day. This part of our body does so much for us - smiling, eating, drinking, talking, swallowing, and so on. Sadly, cases of head and neck cancer are increasing - it is now the eighth most common cancer in the UK, and the fourth most diagnosed in men, with around 12,500 people diagnosed in the UK each year. Despite this, most people still don't know about it until it affects them.

Head and Neck cancers comprise over 30 different types of cancer that are classified based on where they are in the head and neck, and the type of cell that they originate in. They include cancers of the throat, thyroid, larynx, nose, sinuses, mouth, and salivary glands.

Human Papillomavirus and Cancer
The increase of head and neck cancers has partly been driven by Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the virus that causes cervical cancer; but whilst the incidence of these cancers has decreased, the incidence of head and neck cancers caused by HPV has increased, and has now overtaken that of cervical cancer. We now think that 40-60% of Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinomas (cancers of the tonsils and base of tongue) are HPV-positive. Our ongoing research at the University of Derby investigates the prevalence of HPV infection in the mouth of the healthy population, how HPV infection causes head and neck cancer, and whether we can detect any pre-cancerous changes associated with the development of the disease.

HPV Vaccination
In the UK we have a very effective vaccination programme for HPV, with vaccination for boys and girls against the most common viral types occurring at school in year 8. We know that this vaccination offers protection for genital HPV infections, and the data are beginning to suggest that there is protection for oral infections too. Regrettably, our vaccination rates are lower than the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s 2030 targets, leaving young adults vulnerable to high-risk HPV infections. We need to increase this coverage in a bid to eliminate cancers driven by HPV.

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancer
Individuals with head and neck cancer are often diagnosed late, when the cancer has already started to spread, which makes treatment more invasive and more intense.  That’s why it’s critical to be aware of the signs and symptoms of the disease – which include a persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, ulcers or white patches in the mouth/throat that don’t clear up, and lumps/swellings in the jaw and throat - and to seek help from your doctor or dentist if you have any concerns.

Head and Neck Screening
Whilst we have very effective screening programmes for a number of cancers in this country, there is no such screening programme for head and neck cancer. It is recommended that dentists perform an oral examination at our check-ups, but we can also do this at home. Raising the profile of head and neck cancer, HPV, and self-screening for the early signs of disease is critical to help reduce numbers and save lives. We have teamed up with our medical colleagues at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton and University Hospitals Leicester, as well as our friends at the Oracle Cancer Trust and The Swallows, to produce a video promoting the self-screening process. It’s really easy: once a month, after you have brushed your teeth, check your mouth and neck, and get to know what’s normal for you; those two minutes could save your life.

The Head and Neck Screen
Check along the insides of your lips and look at your gums. Are there any lumps, bumps, or red or white patches? Look at the back of your mouth. Stick out your tongue and move it from side to side. Don’t forget to look underneath too. Feel under and around your jaw. This area can sometimes be a bit lumpy if you’ve had a cold or other illness. So learn what’s normal for you. If you find anything that’s new or unusual, it’s time to see your doctor.

Early Detection
If we can catch head and neck cancers early, then treatment has a higher success rate. But early detection doesn’t just save lives, it saves quality of life too. Please watch the video, follow the guidance, and share with your friends and family.