Mouth Cancer: People Suffer Symptoms For Too Long Before Seeking Help

Most people with kidney or bladder cancer symptoms will see their doctor after two days, but people with symptoms of mouth cancer tend to wait weeks before getting medical help.

New research has been published in a bid to raise awareness about symptoms.

People with cancers of the mouth and the oesophagus - the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach - are waiting longer between first noticing a symptom and going to their GPs compared to patients with other types of cancers, the new research suggests.

The study, conducted by researchers from Cambridge, Durham and Bangor universities and the National Cancer Intelligence Network, examined the number of days between when a patient first noticed a symptom to when they sought medical help.

Using data concerning GP consultations of more than 10,000 patients with 18 different cancers, the authors found that for patients with mouth cancer the average time to visit their GP after noticing a symptom is around a month.


  • Ulcers that do not heal: A sore area (ulcer) that doesn't heal is one of the two most common symptoms of mouth cancer. 80 out of every 100 people with mouth cancer (80%) have a mouth ulcer that does not heal.
  • Persistent discomfort or pain in the mouth: Ongoing pain or discomfort in the mouth is the other most common symptom of mouth cancer.

  • White or red patches in the mouth or throat: An abnormal looking patch in the mouth could be a sign of cancer or precancerous changes.
  • Areas of abnormal cells may look red or white. White patches are called leukoplakia (pronounced loo-ko-play-kee-a), and the red patches are called erythroplakia (pronounced air-ith-row-play-kee-a). These patches are not cancer, but if left untreated they may lead to cancer. There is more information about leukoplakia and erythroplakia in this section.
  • Difficulty in swallowing: Mouth cancer can cause pain or a burning sensation when chewing and swallowing food. Or you may feel that your food is sticking in your throat. Difficulty swallowing can also be caused by other conditions such as a harmless narrowing of the food pipe (oesophagus). If you have this symptom it is important to see your doctor and get some treatment.
  • Speech problems: Cancer in your mouth or throat can affect your voice. Your voice may sound different. It may be quieter, husky, or sound as if you have a cold all the time. Or you may slur some of your words or have trouble pronouncing some sounds.
  • A lump in the neck: You may have a lump in your neck caused by an enlarged lymph node. Swelling of one or more lymph nodes in the neck is a common symptom of mouth and oropharyngeal cancers. A hot, red, painful lump usually means an infection, rather than a cancer. Lumps that come and go are not usually due to cancer either. Cancer usually forms a lump that slowly gets bigger.

The research, published in the International Journal of Cancer, also found that oesophageal cancer patients are waiting around three weeks to see their family doctor.

Meanwhile, patients with bladder and kidney cancers wait just two or three days before going to see their GP.

Cancer Research UK said the findings highlight the need for awareness campaigns to encourage people to visit their GPs sooner if they notice any symptoms.

"Oropharyngeal and oesophageal cancers are relatively common but both have a relatively poor outlook for survival," said one of the study's authors Dr Georgios Lyratzopoulos, a post-doctoral fellow based at the University of Cambridge.

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"Previous research shows that two of the key symptoms for these cancers - difficulty swallowing and ulcers that don't heal - are the least well-known by the public for their links with cancer."

Co-author Professor Greg Rubin, from Durham University and clinical lead for cancer for the Royal College of GPs and Cancer Research UK, added: "The result is better understanding of how people with different cancers react to symptoms and where efforts to raise public awareness should be targeted."

Sara Hiom, Cancer Research UK's director of early diagnosis, said: "It's good to see patients with kidney and bladder cancers going to their doctors so quickly, perhaps because their symptoms are more noticeable. But we must do more to encourage people with other less well recognised symptoms to see their GPs as soon as possible.

"Some symptoms are more obvious than others so the important thing is to get to know your own body and what's normal for you. When cancer is diagnosed earlier, treatment is usually more effective and the chances of beating the disease are higher."

Symptoms of oesophageal cancer include difficulties in swallowing, weight loss, throat pain and a persistent cough.

Signs of mouth cancer include mouth ulcers that do not heal, red and white patches on the lining of the mouth or tongue and swelling in the mouth that lasts three weeks or more.