According to dental hygienist, Ali Lowe, dental professionals all have stories of patients they will never forget because they somehow marked their lives. In this interview she relates the story of an experience that spurred her to create a new lip awareness campaign.
A few years ago I had light bulb moment during a routine appointment. My patient had a sore on his lower lip and I suggested he have it checked by a doctor. He later on confirmed that what I spotted was lip cancer. That made me shiver!
Although we are taught in dental school to look at the lips of patients, the inside of the mouth is what we are generally interested in. And the lips are just what get in the way of our treatment!
Most lip cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This means they begin in the thin, flat cells in the middle and outer layers of the skin called squamous cells.
These cancers tend to spread quickly. So I felt lucky that my patient took my professional advice seriously.
I think that the COVID situation has helped. Since lockdown, people have really focused on self care. They have changed their stance about how they view healthcare professionals. They value what we say more in an attempt to achieve a healthier life, embracing any tips they can find to boost their immunity and reduce vulnerability to disease and illness.
As a profession, we talk about oral cancer in general and risk factors such as tobacco, alcohol and human papilloma virus (HPV). But how often do we mention UV damage?
The incidence of lip cancer in the UK is thankfully not so high. But that does not mean it is non-existent. The risk is going to increase, compounded by climate change, including stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming and ambient air pollution.
We have also recently noted a change in behaviour following COVID, with people taking up new hobbies such as running, walking, cycling, gardening and water sports. These all lead to greater susceptibility to UV radiation-induced carcinogenesis. Hence the need to continue raising awareness.
Consumers’ lives have evolved. We have a duty of care as professionals to flag up any health risks – whether dentally related or not. And make a difference.
A smile on my lips
Thanks to sponsorship from Philips, I recently joined the Smile Revolution business course with Victoria Wilson to help develop a lip care awareness project.
The course is so thought-provoking. It shows me how to tap into my skills and expertise, whilst making me think outside the box to develop a project that helps address this concern and expand my vision for the project. Victoria is full of resources and is amazing at giving advice about how to expand on my ideas.
I hope at the same time I can inspire my peers to see how they can expand their skills and develop similar initiatives.
We have so much to offer to the general public. This is an exciting and rewarding prospect from a professional development viewpoint and to work outside a practice setting.
Paying more than lip service to the facts
According to the British Skin Foundation, lip cancer accounts for about 12.0 per 100,000 per annum of all cancers in the United Kingdom*.
The good news is that because they are in a visible area, cancers of the lip are usually caught early. As a result, treatment is often successful.
Sadly, for some that are not caught early, lip cancer can have many functional and cosmetic consequences. People may experience trouble with speech, chewing, and swallowing following treatment. Surgery can also result in disfigurement of the lip and face.
Some quick tips
From my experience, people love tips from professionals. We should always strive to relay as much information as possible.
So here are a few details I gathered and which I would love you to pass onto as many patients, family and friends as possible:
- The British Skin Foundation recommends using an SPF higher than 30. And, if you have a fair complexion, that rises to SPF 50. Properly applied, SPF 50 can block 98% of all rays. Everyone should wear a broad-spectrum SPF lip balm regardless of age, gender, or skin type
- There are two types of sunscreens: physical sunscreen creates a barrier to deflect UV rays and includes ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which can appear white and be thicker in texture. The skin absorbs chemical screens, on the other hand, and scatters UV radiation. These sunscreens are thinner and require less product to protect
- Shiny lip gloss can actually absorb sunlight. This increases the risk of a sunburn on your lips. Wearing non-SPF lip products will not offer protection and could actually do even more damage than leaving your lips bare
- There are also some ingredients you should avoid as they are very irritating. They include camphor, menthol, fragrances, flavours, phenol and salicylic acid. Instead, SPF lip balm should contain nourishing and hydrating ingredients like shea butter, honey, jojoba oil, vitamin E, and aloe that will restore moisture, relieve chapped lips, and soften the skin
- Blue light (HEV) emitted from digital devices is also a topic that we should mention because prevention is better than cure. There is a lot of literature out there on the subject.
Mouth Cancer Action Month is November. So I would prompt my peers to set a target and talk to as many people as possible about this. If one person can benefit from your advice, it is all worth it.
As for my project, I am delighted to have the support of Philips Oral Healthcare who have agreed to sponsor my mentorship with Victoria. This is going to favourably impact on how I can progress with my lip project.
I have now launched a campaign called Fit-Lip, which is aimed at encouraging people to wear SPF lip balm in order to protect their lips, prevent lip cancer and generally keep their pout healthy.
Anyone interested to learn more about the action can visit Instagram @FitLipUK or visit www.smile-revolution.net and www.smilerevolutiongrowthhub.com.