With the number of cases growing by 58 per cent across the UK in the last decade, early diagnosis at check-ups is seen as the key to life-saving treatment.
However, critics say many people were struggling to access NHS dentistry even before the coronavirus crisis forced surgeries to close and then reopen with severely reduced capacity, meaning too often the cancer is often being discovered at a late stage.
Campaigners have warned that health chiefs must urgently overhaul NHS dentistry to combat rocketing rates of the disease.
At the Western Sussex Hospitals trust, there were 65 hospital admissions for mouth cancer in 2018/19, according to NHS Digital figures.
The figure was the same the previous year, while in 2016/17 the figure stood at 60.
Patients will be captured more than once if they have to be admitted for treatment multiple times.
Across England, hospital admissions for oral cancer increased by 30 per cent in England between 2010/11 and 2019/20, to 26,773.
Roger Scholes, Principal Dentist at Market House Dental Practice in Chichester, urged people to attend check-ups – stressing that awareness and early diagnosis could make ‘all the difference’.
He said: “Obviously at the moment due to the pandemic some people are either unable to access a dentist or are choosing to hold off from visiting their dentist for routine appointments.
“When normality resumes there will be very long waiting lists to be seen.
“I would urge those patients not to let their check-ups lapse. Early detection and awareness is key.”
Dentists should be checking the mouth for oral cancer routinely, he said.
“They are often the first people to spot the early signs,” he said. “If your dentist suspects cancer they will refer you to a specialist.
“If diagnosed at an early stage, treatment is generally very effective.”
Figures from the Oral Health Foundation show there were 8,722 diagnoses of mouth cancer in the UK in 2019 – an increase of 58 per cent compared to 10 years ago and up 97 per cent over the last 20 years.
Tragically, 2,701 people died from the illness in 2018.
The British Dental Association (BDA) warns many people may now be ‘walking around with oral cancer that hasn’t been picked up’ thanks to the pandemic.
The number of missed NHS dental appointments had reached 15 million in the year to the end of August when compared to the same period in 2019, according to the organisation.
Chairman of the BDA, Eddie Crouch, said: “Dentists are on the frontline for picking up on the telltale signs of oral cancer.
“The condition claims more lives each year than car accidents, and early detection really is key.”
But he said that ‘millions of patients are now struggling to get an appointment’, adding: “For years check-ups have been effectively rationed which made the early detection of these life changing cancers an unacceptable lottery.”
Even before the pandemic, an estimated 4m people in England were not accessing NHS dentistry because they could not find a practice, could not afford the charges, were on a waiting list or had not even tried to find a dentist because they assumed they would fail, the BDA said.
Now with practices operating at a fraction of their former capacity, numbers have surged.
Since practices reopened in June, Healthwatch West Sussex said it had heard ‘a steady stream’ of stories from people unable to get an NHS dental appointment – read more here.
Dr Phillip Lewis, of the Mouth Cancer Foundation, said patients should see a dentist at least once a year, but in practice millions of people do not meet even this most basic recommendation.
He said: “The chances of treating mouth cancer are the greatest when it is found early - but it is often discovered late because patients have not been coming in for regular examinations.
“When mouth cancer is discovered in its earliest stages the chances of complete cure over five years are really good - about 95 per cent.
“But as soon as there is a time delay and the cancer spreads, the survival rates absolutely plummet and the treatments are really unpleasant.”
Dr Lewis said an ‘underfunded’ system, an inadequate target-driven contract and problems with recruitment were all factors in limiting access to NHS dentistry.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care, which is responsible for dentistry in England, said: “Every cancer patient deserves the best possible care and we are committed to detecting more cancers at an earlier stage to save an estimated 55,000 lives a year by 2028.
“As part of this, every dentist is expected to fully assess their patient’s oral health to look for the signs of cancer.”
See more from our #dentistryindecay investigation: