Dentist’s warning after ‘healthy and active’ dad dies at aged 37

A healthy dad of seven who died after being diagnosed with an aggressive type of mouth cancer has led to warnings from dentists.

Alan Birch was just 35 when he had 90% of his tongue removed as a result of the disease in 2018. His cancer diagnosis came as a shock, as he lived a healthy, active lifestyle and did not drink or smoke.

Alan, from Moreton in Merseyside underwent both radiotherapy and chemotherapy, but despite the treatment, the cancer returned each time – and even more aggressively.

His devastated family were then faced with the news that there was nothing more that could be done for him, giving him just months to live.

Alan died in April, just weeks after marrying his partner of 12 years, Debbie McDonough.

His wife Debbie told the ECHO at the time: “I would urge people to always keep on top of their dentist appointments as they are the ones who notice the warning signs for mouth and tongue cancer.

“Always be careful of ulcers especially if you have them longer than two weeks, and never think you are wasting an appointment if you are worried about anything. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

His tragic case has now prompted concerns that thousands of cases are going undiagnosed.

While figures from the British Dental Association show that 19 million treatments have been missed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns.

Dentists are now concerned that large numbers of cases of mouth cancer could have potentially gone undetected this year as a result.

Mouth cancer claims more lives annually than cervical cancer and testicular cancer combined, with 8,722 new cases reported in the UK last year. This is a 58% increase compared to a decade ago and a 97% rise since 2000.

But research states there is still a chronic lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding this type of cancer – and dentists are keen to rectify this.

New research revealed that 52% of people living in the north west are unaware their dentist will screen them for mouth cancer during a routine check-up. This figure was highest with those aged between 25-35, increasing to 61%.

a man and a woman sitting at a table: Alan Birch, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the mouth, signs the marriage register with his long-term partner - now wife - Debbie McDonough

© Joe Hague Photography
Alan Birch, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the mouth, signs the marriage register with his long-term partner – now wife – Debbie McDonough

Dr Catherine Tannahill, dentist and director of clinical dentistry at Portman Dental Care, which carried out the research, said: “As dentists we see first-hand the impact this disease can have, and that’s why we want to ensure people are aware of what the signs and symptoms are, what to do if they spot an issue and what steps they can take to reduce the risk of developing mouth cancer.

“This is now more important than ever before, as thousands of diagnoses may have potentially been missed this year due to dental practices having to close in initial lockdown, and the subsequent backlog of appointments since.

“While this may sound alarming, early diagnosis of mouth cancer leads to a 90% survival rate, which is why it is imperative that people continue visiting their dentist for regular check-ups.

“Dentists play a pivotal role in the detection of mouth cancer, as they will always check for the classic signs of the disease during any routine appointment. As a dental professional, it was concerning to see through our research how many people were unaware of this.

“The most common signs of mouth cancer are mouth ulcers that do not heal in three weeks, unusual lumps or swelling in the mouth, head or neck, and red and white patches within the mouth. Mouth cancer can appear in the tonsils, the roof or floor of the mouth and in the tongue, so it is important that people thoroughly check all areas of their mouth.

“There are also a few simple lifestyle changes that people can make that can help reduce the risk of developing mouth cancer. These include maintaining a healthy diet, reducing drinking alcohol, stopping smoking, using SPF on your lips and of course, visiting the dentist regularly.

“We strongly encourage people to act fast once they spot anything out of the ordinary, as it will vastly increase their chance of combating the disease. Seek advice from a healthcare professional as soon as possible if you have any concerns.

“Sadly, 2,704 people die from mouth cancer every year, but with increased awareness and knowledge, and regular trips to the dentist, we can all help to reduce that number.”

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