Should I see a mouth cancer specialist? | Cancer Research UK
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Should I see a mouth cancer specialist?

Men and women discussing mouth cancer

This page tells you about the guidelines that GPs in the UK have to help them decide who needs to see a specialist for suspected mouth cancer. You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Should I see a mouth cancer specialist?

The symptoms of mouth or oropharyngeal cancer can be very similar to those of other less serious conditions. So it can be very difficult for GPs to decide who to refer to a specialist. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced guidelines for GPs to help them decide which patients need to be seen urgently by a specialist.

Urgent referral guidelines

The guidelines say that your GP should consider an urgent referral to a specialist if you have

  • Mouth ulcers that do not go away after 3 weeks
  • An unexplained lump in the neck that won't go away

Your GP should consider an urgent referral to a dentist to check for oral cancer if you have

  • A lump on the lip or in your mouth that won't go away or
  • Red or red and white patches in your mouth (that are not thrush)  

If the dentist feels that these symptoms could be a cancer, then you should be referred to a cancer specialist within 2 weeks. 

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About mouth cancer section.

 

 

UK guidelines

The symptoms of mouth or oropharyngeal cancer can be very similar to symptoms of other less serious conditions. So it can be very difficult for GPs to decide who may have a cancer and who may have something much more minor that will go away on its own. It can be difficult for GPs to decide who to refer to a specialist. 

With many symptoms, it is perfectly right that your GP should ask you to wait to see if your symptoms go away on their own, or respond to treatment such as antibiotics or anti fungal medicines. If GPs referred everyone with any symptom to a specialist immediately, the system would get jammed. People needing urgent appointments wouldn't then be able to get them.

Seeing a specialist

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has produced guidelines for GPs in the UK to help them decide which patients need to be seen urgently by a specialist. While reading these guidelines, it is important to remember that

  • Mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are uncommon – there are about 6,800 cases diagnosed each year in the UK
  • A number of risk factors affect your chances of developing a mouth or oropharyngeal cancer
  • There are very few cases diagnosed in people under 50
  • General symptoms such as bad breath are much more likely to be something less serious
 

Guidelines for urgent referral

According to the NICE guidelines, you should get an appointment within 2 weeks if you have symptoms that could be due to cancer. The guidelines say that your GP should consider an urgent referral to a cancer specialist if you have

  • Mouth ulcers that do not go away after 3 weeks
  • An unexplained lump in the neck that won't go away

Your GP should consider an urgent referral to a dentist to check for oral cancer if you have 

  • A lump on the lip or in the mouth that won't go away or 
  • Red or red and white patches in your mouth (that are not thrush)

If the dentist feels that these symptoms could be a cancer, then you should be referred to a cancer specialist within 2 weeks.

It is important to bear in mind that some of these symptoms can be caused by other less serious medical conditions. They do not necessarily mean that you have cancer of the mouth or oropharynx. But you could be more at risk of mouth or oropharyngeal cancer if you are a long term smoker (especially if you drink as well) or if you chew tobacco (betel quid, paan, gutkha).

 

Non urgent referral

Your GP may send you to a specialist as a non urgent referral if you have red or white patches in your mouth that are not painful, swollen or bleeding. There are conditions called erythroplakia and leukoplakia which are not cancerous, but can lead to cancer in some people over time if they are not treated.

 

If you are still worried

If you are worried that your GP is not taking your symptoms as seriously as you think they should, you could print this page and take it along to an appointment. Ask your GP to talk it through with you. Then you may be able to decide together whether you need to see a specialist, and if so, how soon.

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Updated: 30 June 2015