New mouth cancer centre to improve survival and quality of life for thousands of patients

Queen Mary University of London

The centre, which will be based at Queen Mary University of London’s Blizard Institute in Whitechapel, will bring together clinical and research experts to explore who is at risk of developing squamous cancer and why.

More than 70,000 people are diagnosed with squamous cancer every year in the UK. It is the most common cause of solid tumours and results in many deaths.

The Barts Centre for Squamous Cancer is being set up with a £2.6m grant from Barts Charity, and will focus on mouth cancer as this is a particularly common problem among the local East London population.

Mouth cancer has increased by 58% over the past decade, yet despite more than 8,700 people being diagnosed every year across the UK, only one in five people know the main signs and symptoms.

Many patients will not survive for five years after being diagnosed, and for those who do, treatment can be harsh and disfiguring, often leaving a devastating impact on a person’s appearance and ability to eat, drink and speak.

Smoking, alcohol, diet, and various viruses all increase an individual’s risk of developing oral cancer, and it is a particular problem in areas of high social deprivation, and among certain groups, such as South Asian communities.

In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the rate has risen by a third over the past decade to 21.5 people per 100,000, and it continues to increase among younger adults due to tobacco use.

Paul Coulthard, Professor of Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Oral cancer has been underfunded for many years, and we hope that by bringing our expertise together in this new centre we will be able to develop a better understanding of mouth cancer. Awareness of risk factors and symptoms is still very low, and we hope our work will improve detection, diagnosis, and access to treatment.

“We know that the risk of being diagnosed with oral cancer is strongly associated with social deprivation, and this is a particular health challenge in London. This centre will enable us to develop a much better understanding of who is at risk and why, so that we can improve treatment and the quality of life for all those affected, both in the UK and wider afield.”

The Barts Centre for Squamous Cancer will bring together clinical and research experts who will work with patient groups, run clinical trials, and build a human tissue bank to improve knowledge and understanding of squamous cancer.

East Londoner Steve Bergman, who lived in Walthamstow for more than 30 years, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Squamous Throat Cancer in May 2016. He says: “I was 56, fit and healthy, eating a good diet and was a keen cyclist and runner. It took me by complete surprise and within two weeks I was admitted to Whipps Cross Hospital for what I thought was a routine exploratory operation.

“However, I had to have radical surgery to remove a massive growth on my right tonsil and I woke up to find I had been fitted with a tracheostomy. I was in hospital for a further two weeks to recover, and then came a period where I underwent six weeks of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiotherapy.

“I then went through a period of physical recovery but the psychological and emotional impact of my condition affected everyday life. I would be doing the most routine of tasks and all of a sudden a surge of panic would run through my veins. This went on for several months and eventually I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“From two or so weeks into radiotherapy until several weeks after the treatment finished, I lost the ability to swallow, my saliva glands stopped working, and I completely lost all sense of taste and developed ulcers in my throat and mouth. However, I have been very fortunate as everything has returned to fully functioning. Currently, I am fit and healthy and have been clear of cancer for nearly 6 years.”

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