Queen Mary University of London is building a center at its Blizard Institute in Whitechapel designed to improve the survival rates of patients with squamous cancer, including oral cancers as well as skin, lung, and cervical cancer. It will bring together clinical and research experts to explore who is at risk of developing squamous cancers and why.
More than 70,000 people are diagnosed with squamous cancer every year in the United Kingdom, said the university, adding that it is the most common cause of solid tumors and results in many deaths.
The Barts Centre for Squamous Cancer is being established with a £2.6 million grant from Barts Charity. It will focus on oral cancer, which is a particularly common problem among the local East London population, the university said.
Oral cancer has increased by 58% over the past decade, the university continued. But despite more than 8,700 people being diagnosed each year in the United Kingdom, only one in five people know the main signs and symptoms, the university said.
Many patients won’t survive for five years after diagnosis. Also, treatment for survivors can be harsh and disfiguring, often leaving a devastating impact on a person’s appearance and ability to eat, drink, and speak.
Smoking, alcohol, diet, and the human papillomavirus (HPV) all increase an individual’s risk of developing oral cancer, and it is a particular problem in areas of high social deprivation and among certain groups such as South Asian communities.
In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, the university said, the rate has risen by a third over the past decade to 21.5 people per 100,000, and it continues to increase among younger adults due to tobacco use.
“Oral cancer has been underfunded for many years, and we hope that by bringing our expertise together in this new center we will be able to develop a better understanding of mouth cancer,” said Paul Coulthard, professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry at Queen Mary University of London.
“Awareness of risk factors and symptoms is still very low, and we hope our work will improve detection, diagnosis, and access to treatment,” Coulthard said.
“We know that the risk of being diagnosed with oral cancer is strongly associated with social deprivation, and this is a particular health challenge in London. This center will enable us to develop a much better understanding of who is at risk and why, so that we can improve treatment and the quality of life for all those affected, both in the UK and wider afield,” he continued.
The Barts Centre for Squamous Cancer will assemble clinical and research experts who will work with patient groups, run clinical trials, and build a human tissue bank to improve knowledge and understanding of squamous cancer, the university said.
East Londoner Steve Bergman, who lived in Walthamstow for more than 30 years, was diagnosed with stage 4 squamous throat cancer in May 2016.
“I was 56, fit and healthy, eating a good diet, and was a keen cyclist and runner. It took me by complete surprise, and within two weeks I was admitted to Whipps Cross Hospital for what I thought was a routine exploratory operation,” Bergman said.
“However, I had to have radical surgery to remove a massive growth on my right tonsil, and I woke up to find I had been fitted with a tracheostomy. I was in hospital for a further two weeks to recover, and then came to a period where I underwent six weeks of chemotherapy followed by six weeks of radiotherapy,” he continued.
“I then went through a period of physical recovery, but the psychological and emotional impact of my condition affected everyday life. I would be doing the most routine of tasks, and all of a sudden a surge of panic would run through my veins. This went on for several months, and eventually I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.
“From two or so weeks into radiotherapy until several weeks after the treatment finished, I lost the ability to swallow, my saliva glands stopped working, and I completely lost all sense of taste and developed ulcers in my throat and mouth,” he said.
“However, I have been very fortunate, as everything has returned to fully functioning. Currently, I am fit and healthy and have been clear of cancer for nearly six years,” he said.