Stay connected

Conference speakers urge patients to stay in touch with the profession and each other

To mark Mouth Cancer Awareness Month 2021, leading local cancer charity, Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, brought together patients, carers and professionals with the return of its annual Head and Neck Cancer Conference in Antrim.

Dervilia Kernaghan, Director of Services at Cancer Focus NI, said: “We know the crisis of connection COVID-19 has caused in the last 18 months and none more so than on local cancer patients and their families. This event with the theme of ‘Staying connected’ brings together expert speakers to support those affected by a head and neck cancer diagnosis. A range of issues will be covered including supporting people after treatment with oral health, exploring the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis and of course, where to get support.

“Currently there are more than 1,600 patients living with oral cancer in NI and we know that peer support is very important to them. People who have been through cancer have a precious insight on how it is to live with a diagnosis and can offer useful, practical advice on how they got through it. So, we’ve chosen the theme of ‘stay connected’, and we encourage patients to keep in touch with each other, with health professionals and with the various care and support services available to them post-diagnosis.”

Cases of oral cancer here are expected to almost double between 2015 and 2035. Unfortunately, many local people are diagnosed at a late stage, with approximately 100 local people dying annually. The conference will highlight the importance of early detection and why people need to be aware of the signs and symptoms.

Dr Gerry McKenna, a clinical restorative dentist working in the Centre for Dentistry in Queens University Belfast, said: “Finding cancer early makes it more treatable. We are asking the public to be ‘mouth aware’, watching out for any changes in the mouth such as mouth ulcers that don’t heal after a few weeks, unexplained lumps or numbness on the lip or tongue, or red and white patches.

“If you do notice any changes in your mouth, make an appointment to get checked out by your dentist. Dentists are trained to perform head and neck cancer screening at every appointment. Although they continue to be severely impacted by the pandemic, they will consider suspect cancer as urgent.

“It is very concerning that 60 per cent of all head and neck cancers in Northern Ireland are diagnosed at a late stage. That’s something British Dental Association (BDA) and the wider dental community want to see significantly improved by engaging in awareness raising with our partners in Cancer Focus NI and seeing references to Oral Health in the new Cancer Strategy implemented in full.”

This was echoed by clinical nurse specialists who support head and neck cancer patients daily, including Dr Cherith Semple, Reader in Clinical Cancer Nursing, Ulster University / South Eastern Health & Social Care Trust. “As a specialist nurse and researcher involved in the management of people with mouth cancer, I’m really keen to raise public awareness surrounding a cancer that is rarely talked about, but often preventable,” she said.

“Prevention includes, reduction of tobacco and alcohol consumption, having a healthy diet, being alert and aware of early warning signs for mouth cancer and attending for regular dental check-ups. Our key message is ‘if in doubt, don’t delay, get checked out’ by your dentist or GP”.

For more information on mouth cancer visit  
Cancer Focus NI offers a range of support services including counselling and art therapy. To find out how they can help visit If you are concerned about cancer you can call the Cancer Focus NI Nurse Line on 0800 783 3339 (Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, 9am to 1pm) or email

Published: 15 December, 2021 at 12:30
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