When Denplan payment plan patient, Ieuan Jones, 56, went to see his dentist for a routine appointment, it was a visit that was about to change his life. He shares his story with us to highlight the importance of regular dental visits and how his mouth cancer was spotted before it was too late.
Finding a lump
“I visited my dentist, Dr Anoushka Wickramasinghe, during October 2017 for a routine dental check-up as part of my Denplan payment plan,” says Ieuan. “At the start of my appointment, before she even looked in my mouth, Dr Wickramasinghe felt around my neck and jawline area. She explained that this was an important health check that all dentists should be doing as part of a routine appointment. It’s fortunate that she did, because she found a lump in my neck that I had no idea was there. She thought it might be a swollen gland and asked if I had a sore throat or felt unwell, which I didn’t – I felt really well.”
Concerned that Ieuan had a lump in his neck for no other obvious reasons, Dr Wickramasinghe asked Ieuan to come back in 10 days for a review. The lump was still there and the father-of-four was then referred to the University Hospital of Wales for further tests.
“The hospital consultant checked my neck, did an ultrasound and took two biopsies of the lump,” says Ieuan. “On 1st November 2017 - ironically the start of Mouth Cancer Action Month - I was told that I had a massive tumour at the back of my tongue and I was diagnosed with stage four mouth cancer.
“I didn’t even feel ill or know the tumour was there, which is the scariest part. I wasn’t losing weight and I had no problems with swallowing. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me. I walked into hospital that day thinking everything was fine and left being told I had a huge tumour at the back of my tongue.”
Between early December 2017 and March 2018, Ieuan underwent intensive chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment to shrink and remove the tumour.
“On 8th December 2017, I started a six day course of 24 hour chemotherapy,” says Ieuan. “Two days later, I had to return to hospital with sepsis – I had virtually every side effect you can imagine from the chemotherapy and was very unwell. On New Year’s Eve, I was well enough to have my next six days of chemotherapy.
“I then started radiotherapy, which took place every day for six weeks. I had to have a peg fitted into my stomach to receive food and fluids as the radiotherapy blasts your throat to burn the cancer away and it’s like getting very bad sunburn inside your throat, making it extremely painful to swallow. Your throat is so swollen that you can hardly take a sip of water.
“Two weeks after I finished my radiotherapy in March 2018, I was able to leave hospital and try to start eating and drinking again. I was just really determined that life had to go on. I couldn’t have morphine as I was allergic to it and didn’t really have anything to take the pain away. The consultants couldn’t believe how I just kept on going and managed to eat despite the pain. Nutrition is essential to your recovery. It was agony but I still had to try to eat in order to get better.”
Mouth cancer risk factors
Mouth cancer can affect anyone regardless of age, gender or lifestyle, but factors including smoking, chewing tobacco, drinking alcohol to excess, poor diet and the human papillomavirus (HPV) can all increase the risk of developing the disease. In Ieuan’s case, his only risk factor was the common HPV virus.
“My consultants think my mouth cancer was likely caused by the very common HPV virus which virtually every person comes in contact with in their lifetime,” says Ieuan. “Why it causes problems in a small number of people and not others is not clear. I was just unlucky. I met a lot of other patients in hospital with mouth and neck cancers and the numbers were quite shocking. It was a real eye-opener into how many people are suffering with this disease.”
Maintaining a positive mind-set
“When you’re told you have cancer, it’s a shock,” says Ieuan. “No one expects to have cancer. I became ‘that guy’ who had cancer. As far as I was concerned, I had nothing wrong with me. I had no symptoms at all until, luckily, it was picked up by my dentist. It’s really important to have a positive mind-set throughout your cancer journey - life has to go on.”
Life after cancer treatment
Three months after finishing his treatment, Ieuan was scanned again and was given the good news that his cancer was gone and hadn’t spread to any other parts of his body.
“All my issues now are basically down to the side effects from the chemotherapy and radiotherapy,” says Ieuan. “I still have a lot of issues and need to go back to the hospital frequently. My salivary glands don’t work at the moment so I’m having to drink fluids all the time. You don’t realise what an important job the salivary glands do until they don’t work! I can’t eat curries anymore due to the spices, but that might improve in the future. At times I struggle as my tongue goes numb and it can be difficult to talk. My body still feels as though it’s healing. I do feel as though I’m improving, but it’s a slow process.
“The hospital are giving me regular checks and keeping on top of things. Once I’m a bit fitter, I’d like to start doing some bike riding for charity.”
The importance of regular dental check-ups
“A dentist doesn’t just check your teeth during an appointment, they are checking for signs of mouth cancer,” says Ieuan. “My dentist is brilliant - she saved my life. I didn’t feel ill - I went for a routine dental check-up and the cancer was picked up. If I hadn’t gone, or had gone six months later, it would have been too late. It’s important that everyone takes the time to go and see their dentist. And, if something doesn’t feel right, go and get it checked out.”
Ieuan’s dentist, Dr Anoushka Wickramasinghe from Family Dental Care in Cardiff, said: “We’re pleased that Ieuan is recovering well and that we managed to spot his cancer early. Cases of mouth cancer have risen by a third in the last decade and can affect anyone regardless of age, gender and lifestyle. Early detection is crucial to successful treatment, which is why regular dental visits are so important. Your dentist is best-placed to spot anything unusual and refer you to a specialist. It’s important to be aware of any changes in your mouth and speak to a dentist if you notice anything that doesn’t seem right. These can include red and white patches in the mouth, mouth ulcers that don’t heal within three weeks, and any lumps or swellings in the mouth, head or neck area.”