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Increase in late-stage diagnosis for head and neck cancers

Throughout the pandemic early dental referrals plummeted, causing an increase in late-stage diagnosis for head and neck cancers.

We have joined forces with Cancer Focus NI during Mouth Cancer Action Month to call for the full implementation of the Northern Ireland Cancer Strategy.

Newly collected data shows that late-stage tumours (T3/T4) increased from 33.76% of 470 cases in 2019 to 41.47% of 371 cases in 2020. The number of referrals in 2020 reduced by 22.1%, which points to the significant impact of the pandemic on head and neck cancer presentation. Additionally, the number of people diagnosed with oral cancer in Northern Ireland has increased by more than 80% between 1993 and 2018, with the relative increase being greater among women than men.

Professor Gerry McKenna, Chair of BDA NI Hospitals Group said: "The data confirms the significant impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on reduced head and neck cancer detection and referrals, and later-stage diagnosis in the wake of what has been traditionally a less than optimal picture by way of detection and diagnosis.

"It’s important we put this into context. A large proportion of our head and neck cancer patients are not patients who are struggling to attend their general dental practice – they are people who do not (and have never) engaged with health services generally, hence the history of late presentation."

The situation could get worse before it gets better, with Dervilia Kernaghan, Director of Services at Cancer Focus NI, commenting, “Cancer Focus NI’s health improvement services emphasise the importance of checking for signs and symptoms of cancer. If mouth cancer is spotted early, the chances of a complete cure are greatly increased. When cancerous lesions are small, treatment is generally less complicated and more effective. It’s vitally important that you go to your dentist or GP if you notice any worrying symptoms as soon as possible, which can include pain in the mouth or earache that persists, a lump in the neck, or difficulty or pain with chewing, swallowing, or speaking.

"The Cancer Strategy identifies attendance for routine examination and care as an ideal time for ‘opportunistic’ screening. With cancer incidence rates much greater in areas of high deprivation, all our population needs access to vital dental services. Later this month, our charity will host up to 100 patients and carers at our Head and Neck Cancer Support and Information Day. A common theme from this event will be the need for fewer barriers in the way to detection, referral, and diagnosis. Now more than ever, we call on our local Government to find urgent solutions to a very immediate threat in Northern Ireland”.

There must be a commitment to raise public awareness of risk factors, early signs of mouth cancer and the importance of regular dental check-ups for those at risk. Dentists check for head and neck cancer at routine appointments and registered patients will be given an urgent appointment if there are any changes in their mouth which may correspond with oral cancer.

We provide the following resources for dental professionals to further your knowledge on detection and to help you educate your patients on what to look out for.

Free oral cancer toolkit

The popular oral cancer toolkit in partnership with Cancer Research UK helps you identify and refer possible cases of oral cancer. You can also earn 3 hours of verifiable CPD.

Journals and CPD

  • BDJ collection on mouth cancer
  • Oral cancer and oral dysplasia webinar with Professor Richard Shaw, Liverpool Head and Neck Centre. Wednesday 23 November 2022 at 19:30 - 20:30


All members can download free dental textbooks from our library. Call 020 7563 4545 or email [email protected] to obtain your password.

Library topic packages

We have around 500 folders of articles available for loan on a range of different dental subjects, borrowed in the same way as a book. They're posted out to members free of charge on loan for one month.