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Building a model for early oral cancer detection

​Early diagnosis of oral cancer is essential. Here is an insight into how a Scottish dental student is developing a model that could help to shape cancer prevention in the future.

Craig Smith stands at a lectern delivering a presentation
Craig Smith
Craig Smith PhD Student

Head and neck (and within this oral) cancer is a disease of high mortality and high morbidity when detected at later stages. If detected at early stages, however, patients can face a much better prognosis.

Early detection leads to better patient outcomes.

Early detection leads to better patient outcomes. For example, surgical treatment alone is often less destructive than when combined with adjuvant radiotherapy treatment which is often indicated at advanced stages. This led me to develop a model to help dentists, GPs and other secondary care professionals to detect cancer early and to help shape cancer prevention in the future.

Inequality and access backlogs

Head and neck cancer incidence is increasing in Scotland, as reported by the BDA. There are many different factors at play which are influencing this increase in cases. There are clinical factors, such as the growing incidence of HPV positive oropharyngeal cancer and a huge backlog in patient appointments caused by the pandemic. People living in more deprived communities (who typically may need treatment more urgently) are struggling the most to access and pay for care. Clinicians have told me stories where patients cannot afford their own phones and in one extreme case a clinician, having exhausted all other options, had to call a local pub to inform the patient of an urgent appointment. Deprivation cannot be understated or overlooked.

Dentists and healthcare professionals cannot detect cancer in patients if they can’t get appointments, however. At a vaccine clinic, I came across what I suspect may have been head and neck cancer in an elderly patient who had been struggling to get a GP appointment, presenting with a persistent hoarseness and throat pain of well over a year and reporting a history of heavy smoking. I ended up contacting the patient in question’s GP. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know the outcome for that patient, but I hope my suspicion was wrong. This story typifies some of the challenges we, as clinicians, face as we deal with the damaging effects of the pandemic and chronic underfunding of the health service.

Specialising in cancer

After completing years one to three of my BDS degree, I began my intercalated year in Public Health just as the pandemic hit. After my first year, a unique opportunity with the TRACC (to Train and Retain Academic Cancer Clinicians) Programme presented itself. TRACC is an exciting clinical academic training programme which is run by the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and funded by Cancer Research UK.

I am the first dental student on this programme, hopefully paving the way for others.

It is an unusual PhD - the programme takes place immediately after an intercalated degree and prior to a student resuming the MBChB or BDS course. The programme aims to arm future clinicians with research techniques and experience, afforded by a fully funded and supported PhD. Students will then finish their clinical degree in dentistry or medicine and be qualified academically, as well as clinically. I am the first dental student on this programme, hopefully paving the way for others to take up this opportunity in the future. 

Creating a risk prevention tool for clinicians

The final tool I’m developing as part of the TRACC programme will aim to use patient demographics, behavioural factors, and clinical factors (obtainable from routine patient histories, notes or even a waiting room questionnaire) to calculate an individual’s cancer risk for a clinician. This could prompt referrals, changes in recall times and discussions of behavioural change. Examples of the factors include:

  • Sex: Men more predisposed, being 2-3 times more likely to develop HNC
  • Age: As we age, the probability of developing many types of cancer increases. Exposure to carcinogens or conversely protective agents are important to consider. Most patients present between their 5th and 7th decade of life
  • Socioeconomic status: Deprivation is a huge factor
  • Alcohol: Clinicians are always conscious of the effects of alcohol increasing cancer risk in patients
  • Smoking: Tobacco smoking is a classic and major risk factor, acting synergistically with alcohol to promote carcinogenesis. We should also be mindful of other tobacco products, especially in ethnically diverse cities like Glasgow where products such as betel quid are popular among Asian communities. Individual risk can be greatly mitigated if a patient quits smoking
  • HPV: HPV infection can promote carcinogenesis and is a big driver in the increase of oropharyngeal cancer rates. It will take years for the full protective effect of the HPV vaccination programme to be fully realised
  • Clinical Factors: Persistent hoarseness, red or white patches, stridor, unexplained weight loss, neck lumps.

Alongside the BDA oral cancer toolkit available to dental teams and cancer recognition CPD providing advice on how to complete an examination of the mouth, oropharynx, and neck for reportable lesions, I want the model to support and equip practitioners to help open a dialogue and start those (sometimes difficult) conversations with patients on behavioural change.

Looking ahead

Head and neck cancers present a major challenge to our healthcare systems, but I believe there is hope. A dual strategy is required, where we improve public awareness and equip clinicians to detect and manage cancers as early and promptly as possible.

There have been great strides in awareness with breast cancer and colon cancer, for example, with high profile voices speaking out. Despite being the eighth most common type diagnosed, head, neck and oral cancer sometimes goes ‘forgotten’ in the public sphere. Awareness is shockingly low, and we must work harder to reach marginalised people in deprived areas.

My PhD has taken me to new settings in healthcare and beyond, I recently had the opportunity to present at an international conference in Heidelberg, Germany. I cannot thank the TRACC programme and my supervisors David Conway, Alex McMahon, Alistair Ross and Gareth Inman enough for the opportunities as well as Jenny Montgomery and the QEUH ENT department for the support.

Dental school is a great starting point to get dentists out there in the field, but research and academic training are also vital for the future, especially in areas such as cancer prevention. I would wholeheartedly encourage dental students and dentists to grab opportunities with both hands and try new things. The more experience you can gain, the better.