Too much is missed through ignorance, according to Iain Hutchison, consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London.
He is calling for a three- pronged attack to educate the public, and to improve teaching of medical students to 'reduce the burden of this crippling disease'.
Mouth cancer can result in distressing and mutilating facial surgery. Mr Hutchison says if tumours in the mouth are treated when they measure less than 2cm, the patients are alive five years later in 80 per cent of cases.
'People simply don't know about this horrible disease. They often only hear about it for the first time when they come to me with mouth ulcers,' he said yesterday.
Smoking and drinking are high-risk factors and delays in diagnosis often prove fatal. Mr Hutchison added: 'The trouble is that people in the lower socio-economic groups tend to smoke and don't like going to the dentist in the first place. And if there are no free check-ups available then they don't tend to go at all, so the mouth ulcers are not picked up.'
In a leading article in tomorrow's edition of the British Medical Journal, Mr Hutchison says that doctors can fail to recognise the signs.
'Only six British medical schools offer any formal teaching on mouth examination by oral and maxillofacial surgeons,' he says.
Increased dental charges and the abolition of the free dental check have stopped elderly and people in lower socio-economic groups from going to dentist, he says. 'Their cancers are likely to be more advanced by the time they reach the clinic.'
Mr Hutchison says that people who have mouth ulcers which fail to heal should seek medical help.