After John Farnham’s oral cancer diagnosis, how can you get a life-saving check?

The shock news of rock legend John Farnham’s mouth cancer diagnosis has doctors warning Australians to get regular check-ups.

Warning: This story contains graphic images readers may find disturbing.

Farnham has had extensive surgery and faces a long recovery process, but it was not until last weekend we learned how he came to be diagnosed.

His son Rob Farnham told A Current Affair his dad, who likes to sleep on his side, had experienced some discomfort sleeping and noticed a lump.

“He just thought it was an ulcer … and it turned out to be cancerous … it’s terrifying,” he said.

Rob said his mum pressed Farnham to go to the dentist, who then discovered what looked like an ulcer but was diagnosed by specialists as an oral cancer.

How to know if you have oral cancer

Australian Dental Association federal treasurer Martin Webb, who is based on the Sunshine Coast, said dentists checked soft tissue for mouth and oral cancers during check-ups.

“You’re looking at the inside of the mouth, you’re looking at the lips, you’re looking at the floor of the mouth and the tissues next to the tongue,” he said.

“Many times you will actually pick up the tongue with a piece of gauze and pull it to the side to check in the back section of the tongue. 

“You’re looking around the throat area for the main areas that cause problems with oral cancer.”

Lesions can often look like ulcers, but they may be cancerous.(Supplied: Martin Webb)

What does it look like?

The Maleny dentist said the cancers often presented as an area that was rough or swollen, with a red or white lesion.

“If you see something that’s white, or red, or ulcerated, you start to think it could be something that could be nasty, and many times an ulcer, a standard ulcer of the mouth, should heal by itself within a week or two,” Dr Webb said.

“Many times, we actually ask a patient to come back in a couple of weeks to check a lesion that looks a bit suspicious.

Close up medical shot inside patients mouth, the tissue around the teeth is cancerous and pus filled
A severe case of oral cancer.(Supplied: Martin Webb)

“If it’s still there, or it’s grown, we’ll send them off to an oral pathologist or to a hospital to have it checked.”

Dr Webb said the most common presentation for oral cancers were in the soft tissue of the lips, tongue, mouth, throat and saliva glands.

“Sometimes you would check on the side of the neck, the lymph glands, and you’re feeling to see if you can feel any what’s called lymphadenopathy, which is a swollen area.”

John Farnham singing into a microphone.
John Farnham is recovering after surgery for oral cancer.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

Are there risk factors?

According to the Cancer Council, smoking and excessive drinking account for 90 per cent of oral cancer cases in Australia.

Headshot of a white middle aged man with blue eyes in a suit
Dr Webb says there is a reasonable survival rate with oral cancer.(Supplied: Martin Webb)

He said sun exposure was a huge risk factor for the lips.

“If you are going to be outside, try and make sure you cover your face with a hat, and wear sunscreen or zinc on your lips to try and prevent you from getting lip cancer,” he said.

“Any ulcer in your mouth, any lump or bump that doesn’t get better by itself, definitely go and show it to your dentist or your oral health practitioner so you can actually get it checked and make sure it’s not anything nasty.”

What does treatment entail?

Dr Webb said if you did get an oral cancer diagnosis, there was a reasonable survival rate with 74 per cent of patients still alive after five years.

Treatment initially entails removing as much cancerous tissue as possible.

“In the mouth, you’d be talking about approximately 1 to 2 centimetres of tissue all the way around where the lesion is found,” he said.

“So if it’s on the side of the tongue, you have to remove part of the tongue and the floor of the mouth area next to the tongue, to try and remove any tissue that might be close to it.

“If it’s near the jaw, many times the surgeons will actually take away part of the jaw and remove it and replace it with a part of bone … sometimes they take a section out of one of the leg bones to actually make up a jaw for you.”

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