Doing more than just talking about cancer
HEROS OF THE HEALTH SERVICE:Head and neck cancer (HNC), which includes mouth cancer, kills more people than cervical cancer, malignant melanoma or Hodgkin’s disease. It is the eighth most common cancer worldwide and causes 250,000 deaths a year.
Every year in Ireland an estimated 400 people are diagnosed with the disease and it is responsible for 150 cancer deaths.
The impact of the treatment for advanced HNC is devastating. Patients can lose half their jaw, part of their face and as a result can have immense difficulty in doing things we all take for granted such as speaking, eating and controlling saliva.
There is just a 20 per cent five-year survival rate for people with advanced disease and those who do survive will have hugely complex ongoing oral care needs for life.
However, perhaps the most striking thing about this devastating cancer is that a lot of these deaths and debilitating disfigurements can be prevented if detected early.
Dr Eleanor O’Sullivan, chairwoman of Mouth Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Ireland (MHNCAI) and clinical lecturer in oral surgery at the Cork University Dental School and Hospital in UCC, has taken the lead in Ireland in both caring for HNC patients and getting the message out that early detection saves lives.
O’Sullivan is responsible for establishing Ireland’s annual mouth cancer awareness day which last year saw more than 10,000 people screened nationwide.
According to O’Sullivan, one of the biggest problems with HNC is that most patients present at an advanced stage of the disease when survival rates are poor.
A lack of public awareness of HNC led O’Sullivan and colleagues in UCC, together with the Irish Cancer Society, the Irish Dental Association, the Dental Health Foundation and HNC survivors, to establish MHNCAI in 2009.
The aim of the body is to raise public and professional awareness of HNC, highlight the risk factors, promote early detection and improve quality of life for patients.
One of the group’s early achievements was Ireland’s first mouth cancer awareness day, which took place in 2010 in the Cork and Dublin dental hospitals. Thanks to the sterling work of O’Sullivan and her colleagues, in just one day more than 3,000 patients were screened and six cancers were detected.
In 2011 more than 700 dentists got involved in the event thanks to the co-operation of the IDA, whose members provided free public screening nationwide. This resulted in more than 10,000 people being screened. Mouth Cancer Awareness Day took place on September 19th this year and once again it was a huge success with pharmacists also getting involved.