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Oral cancer: why early detection is key

Blog Author Mark McDonald MSP

Blog Date 30/04/2019

Mark McDonald MSPWorld Cancer Day – 4 February 2019 – was a very poignant day for me and my family. It marked the second anniversary of my father's death from oral cancer.


And it's why BDA Scotland's work on oral cancer– including its emphasis on the importance of early detection – struck a personal chord with me.


Shortly before his 60th birthday, my dad noticed what he thought was an ulcer under his false teeth. Down at the base of his mouth. As he had dentures, he tended not to visit the dentist and did not have regular oral health check-ups.

Now for many people, there is often a misconception that if they do not have their own teeth, they do not need to go to the dentist. Dental checks are about much more than just checking that teeth are okay—they are about wider oral health.


But Dad dismissed the growth and returned to his job in Africa. He returned home with a very large growth on his jaw, but again he initially dismissed it as probably the result of an insect bite to his face.

It took some nagging from my mum until he eventually made an appointment to see the emergency dentist. From there, he was quickly referred to the maxillofacial clinic, and was referred for a biopsy.

We began to realise that we were probably heading towards a cancer diagnosis. We had read so much in the news about cancers being caught early and people being treated effectively and recovering, so we desperately hoped this was the case for my father.


In June 2016, my father received the diagnosis of cancer and was told that it had developed to a stage at which there was no hope of recovery. It was exceptionally difficult to watch him slowly losing the ability to communicate, to speak and be understood. To watch the frustration when he tried to make conversation but could not be readily understood because of the effect that oral cancer was having on him.


In 2017, the year my father passed away, oral cancer deaths in NHS Grampian rose from 21 to 28. And local officials told me that late presentation is often a key factor.

It's why I'm convinced the BDA has got it right on defending patients' right to an annual check-up. Because with oral cancers early detection really is key.


I often think back and wonder, what if my dad had gone to be seen more quickly? What if he had had regular dental check-ups? What if he had taken the steps that might have identified the cancer earlier? I cannot know for sure, but it would certainly have increased his chances.


Mark McDonald

MSP for Aberdeen Donside


Scotland oral cancer awareness campaign

With oral cancers, the key is spotting early on: early detection results in a roughly 90 per cent survival rate, compared to a 50 per cent survival rate for delayed diagnosis - we campaign to raise awareness of the issues, and provide resources for dental professionals to use.


What is BDA Scotland doing?

Read our report: 'Oral cancer - A plan for action', which highlights some of the key trends in Scotland and sets our recommendations to key stakeholders.