Dentist issues warning after ‘healthy’ dad dies at 37

The tragic case of a Wirral dad-of-seven who lost his battle with an aggressive form of mouth cancer has led to concerns that thousands of cases are going undiagnosed.

Alan Birch, 37, had 90% of his tongue removed when he was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2018.

Despite Alan undergoing both radiotherapy and chemotherapy, the cancer returned each time and specialists told his devastated family there was nothing more they could do for him.

The news was even more shocking as Alan, a self-employed plasterer from Moreton, lived a healthy, active lifestyle and did not drink or smoke.

It was after learning of the devastating diagnosis that Alan and his partner of 12 years, Debbie McDonough, decided to get married. The wedding ceremony in February was attended by more than 150 family and friends.

Debbie said at the time: “Usually the cancer he has is curable, but he got it in a very aggressive form. Every time they operated, it came back worse.”

a group of people posing for the camera: Dad-of-seven Alan Birch, pictured with his partner Debbie

© Liverpool Echo
Dad-of-seven Alan Birch, pictured with his partner Debbie

After winning hearts across Merseyside, sadly Alan died a few weeks later in April.

Mouth cancer takes more lives 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.

a man and a woman sitting at a table: Alan Birch and Debbie McDonough on their wedding day in February

© Joe Hague Photography
Alan Birch and Debbie McDonough on their wedding day in February

With the latest figures from the British Dental Association showing that 19 million treatments have been missed due to lockdown, dentists are now concerned about the number of cases of mouth cancer that will have potentially gone undiagnosed this year as a result.

But there is still a lack of awareness and knowledge around this type of cancer – something which dentists are keen to continue to try and rectify.

This comes as 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%.

What are the latest coronavirus figures for where you live? Find out by adding your postcode.

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.

a close up of a man and woman posing for the camera: Alan Birch led a healthy, active lifestyle before he was diagnosed with the deadly disease

© Liverpool Echo
Alan Birch led a healthy, active lifestyle before he was diagnosed with the deadly disease

“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.”

More information and advice about mouth cancer can be found here.

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