Dentists are best placed to detect mouth cancer

Tom O’Neill knew something was wrong. He had a sore throat, but it didn’t feel like any sore throat he ever had before.

aving seen a doctor and taken medication for a week in July 2019, he was referred by his GP to his dentist and, within minutes of sitting down in the dental chair at Dillon Dental, something worrying was detected; something that required further exploration and fast.

Speaking on Mouth Cancer Awareness Day last Wednesday, Adrian Dillon said dentists are best placed to discover lesions, so regular check-up appointments are vital, especially for members of our older community.

Mouth Cancer Awareness Day is supported by the main dental health organisations, the Irish Cancer Society and the National Cancer Control programme. Over 700 cases of mouth, head and neck cancer are diagnosed every year in Ireland, and this figure has been steadily increasing in recent years. While mouth, head and neck cancer can occur at any age, the majority of mouth cancers are diagnosed in the over 55s, regardless of whether or not they still have their own natural teeth or may be wearing dentures.

The awareness campaign urges people to attend their dentist at least once a year for a routine examination of their mouth, even if they have no remaining natural teeth.

Tom (73) from Pondfields, New Ross, was dispatched with a note to be seen urgently at UCC’s dental college the following morning.

He was assessed and told his dentist’s hunch was right and an inspection by a consultant confirmed that Tom had suspected throat cancer.

A biopsy, MRI and CT scans were taken and the news was relayed to Tom that he had a tumour in his mouth under his tongue.

‘I was told 30 per cent of my tongue would have to be removed. The tumour was about 25mm in diameter and the biopsy showed it was malignant,’ Tom said.

He was told in August 2019 that there was hope because of the speed at which the dentist diagnosed something wrong and urged him to see a specialist in Cork.

Within two months, Tom was operated on for over eight hours in the South Infirmary Hospital in a very complicated medical procedure due to the location of the tumour.

‘I can’t remember what I felt like when I woke up. I looked in a very bad state. There were tubes everywhere on either side of my mouth draining into two vacuum pumps removing all the lymph nodes from my mouth to ensure it hadn’t spread.’

His consultant told him that there would be many more positive outcomes if people acted on their suspicions quickly. ‘He said: “thankfully you and your dentist did and that has made my job easier”. Thankfully, the analysis came back clear,’ Tom said.

Tom remained in hospital for a few weeks and was tube fed until February 2020. He couldn’t talk during this period because he had a tracheotomy as well.

‘My voice came back. Prior to that, I was using a whiteboard and marker. I want to let other people know your dentist is best placed to help you. Some people are extremely reluctant to go and have oral problems checked out but they should because dentists pick problems up faster than anyone else.

‘Some people don’t realise how serious things can get if you put them on the long finger; something that may seem trivial. Normally I wouldn’t bother even going to a doctor about something like that but I had this uneasy feeling. I want to thank Dillon Dental. I’ve never felt better, apart from a little problem with certain words. But I don’t care – I’m alive!’

Signs of mouth, head and neck cancer can include an ulcer, white or red patches inside the mouth, a lump in the mouth or neck, or a persistent sore throat or hoarseness. If people have these symptoms for more than three weeks, they should contact their dentist or doctor.

People who have not visited a dentist in the past year to have a routine mouth check-up, are urged to make an appointment. The vast majority of the population are entitled to a free dental check-up every year.

If detected early, treatment for mouth cancer can be more straightforward and have an excellent outcome. Unfortunately for those who are diagnosed at a late stage, the outcomes can be poor and affected individuals can be left with life altering changes to their appearance and their ability to speak, eat and swallow.

Everyone who has a medical card is entitled to a free examination annually while most other people will be covered under the PRSI scheme.

For more information go to

If anyone is worried or affected by any aspect of mouth head and neck cancer, they can talk to a cancer nurse on the Irish Cancer Society’s Cancer Support Line, Freephone 1800 200 700 or go to

New Ross Standard

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