17/03/2015 08:16 GMT | Updated 17/03/2015 08:59 GMT

Breaking A Tooth Saved The Life Of Mum Who Was 'Weeks From Death' With Mouth Cancer (Warning: GRAPHIC IMAGES)

Warning: Graphic Images

A mum-of-four has credited chipping her tooth while opening her son's juice bottle with saving her life, as her dentist diagnosed her with advanced mouth cancer.

Lisa Epsom was told that to stop the cancer killing her in a matter of weeks she would need to undergo an operation that would involve removing half of her face.

"That Fruit Shoot bottle saved my life," said Epsom, 34, from Abbey Wood, South East London. "Had I not opened it with my teeth, I would not be here.

"I've lost my looks and feel disfigured. People stare at me in the street but I'm alive and I can watch my kids grow up, so it's a small price to pay. Now I want others to be more aware of mouth cancer - because I had never even heard of it."

lisa epsom

Epsom's tooth broke in September 2013, when she attempted to open a Fruit Shoot bottle with her mouth, while at home with her baby daughter Tiffany, now two, and her son Maison, now six. She also has two older children, Sarah, 14, and Natasha, 12, who live with their father.

Epsom said she 'could have kicked [herself] for being so silly', as she had known her teeth had become weaker since her last pregnancy, with Tiffany.

Thinking all that would be needed would be a cosmetic repair, she booked an appointment to see her dentist three weeks later.

During the appointment Epsom's dentist spotted a red patch on the roof her mouth, which was about the size of a 5p coin and had veins coming out of it.

"Right away, alarm bells began ringing in my head," Epsom said. "I'd spotted it about a year before but a GP said it was nothing to worry about.

"I had a bad feeling and just knew it was cancer. I had smoked when I was younger."

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The following week Epsom went to hospital for a biopsy and, five days later, she was told she had advanced mouth cancer.

A biopsy revealed a golf ball sized tumour had formed under Epsom's nose and cheek, and a consultant informed her that if she had gone another six to eight weeks without treatment she would have died.

Two weeks later she underwent surgery, during which surgeons removed most of her cheekbone and palete, then used tissue from her thigh to rebuild her face.

lisa epsom

Epsom had been warned that she would look different after the operation but she said that 'nothing could have prepared' her for what she saw in the mirror. She felt that she looked like a 'monster' and didn't allow her two younger children to visit her in hospital for three weeks.

"Tiffany was terrified and hid from me. That broke my heart — she was scared of her own mummy," she said.

"Maison asked if my face would ever go back to normal and I had to explain that even though I looked different on the outside, I would still be the same mummy on the inside.

"He just shrugged and said 'I know' and jumped on to my lap for a cuddle.

"I can't pretend it didn't bother me, but if I had to choose between my looks and watching my kids grow up, there really is no contest."

Epsom left hospital a month after the operation. She then underwent six weeks of radiotherapy from January to March 2014, and last July scans showed she was cancer-free.

"My confidence has gone but it's a small price to pay. I'm learning to live again and I'm alive, and that's more important than anything," she said.

"I've learned so much about what's important and that I have amazing family and friends who have supported me every step of the way,

"I also know it's vital to visit the dentist regularly. Mine saved my life."

Mouth cancer is relatively rare and accounts for just one in 50 of all cancer cases in the UK, but it is potentially fatal, as for many people - like Epsom - it isn't diagnosed until it reaches an advanced stage.

Research last year found that when patients with mouth cancer first noticed a symptom they waited on average around a month before arranging a visit to their GP.

The survival rate for stage 1 mouth cancer (in its earliest form) is 90%, so it's worth watching out for the warning signs to catch it early.

Symptoms of mouth cancer include:

* Ulcers that do not heal.

* Persistent discomfort or pain in the mouth.

* White or red patches in the mouth or throat.

* Difficulty in swallowing.

* A lump in the neck.

* Speech problems. 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 certain sounds.

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