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1-866-442-CANCER (2262)

Cancer Services Program
Bureau of Chronic Disease Control
New York State Department of Health
Riverview Center, Suite 350
Albany, NY 12204-0678
canserv@health.state.ny.us

About oral cavity cancer

What should people know about cancer of the oral cavity?

The oral cavity is made up of the mouth, pharynx and salivary glands. Almost four percent of cancers occur in the oral cavity. Most oral cavity cancers occur on the tongue, floor of the mouth, gums, lip, tonsils and the oropharynx (the part of the throat just behind the mouth). Cancer of the salivary glands is relatively rare. However, when it does occur, it most frequently starts in the parotid gland.

The nasopharynx is the upper part of the back of the throat. Cancer of the nasopharynx has different risk factors than cancers of the rest of the oral cavity and pharynx. This fact sheet does not include cancer of the nasopharynx.

Each year in New York State, over 1,400 men and about 700 women are diagnosed with cancer of the oral cavity. About 300 men and over 100 women in New York die of the disease each year.

Who gets cancer of the oral cavity?

Cancer of the oral cavity is two to three times more common among men than among women. Black men are more likely to get oral cavity cancer than White men, and are almost twice as likely to die from the disease.

Most oral cavity cancers occur among people over the age of 60, but they can occur in young people. Cancer of the oral cavity is rare in children.

What factors increase risk for developing cancer of the oral cavity?

At this time, the causes of cancer of the oral cavity are not well understood. However, scientists agree that certain factors increase a person's risk of developing this disease. These risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use. Using tobacco of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes and smokeless tobacco is the most important cause of cancer of the oral cavity.
  • Alcohol use. Drinking alcoholic beverages in excess can also cause cancer of the oral cavity.

People who use tobacco and drink alcoholic beverages in excess have a much greater risk of getting oral cavity cancer than people who do either one alone (or people who do neither). It is estimated that as many as 80% of all oral cavity cancers may be due to these two practices.

  • Diet. People who eat a diet low in vegetables and fruits are at increased risk for cancer of the oral cavity.
  • Personal history of cancer. People who have had one cancer of the oral cavity have a greater risk of developing another oral cavity cancer. People who have had other smoking-related cancers, such as lung cancer, are also at increased risk of developing oral cavity cancer.
  • Family history. People with close relatives (parents, brothers/sisters, children) who have had oral cavity cancer are at increased risk of getting cancer of the oral cavity.

In addition, certain parts of the oral cavity have their own risk factors:

  • Lip. Cancer of the lip is associated with outdoor occupations, such as farming and fishing. This may be due to excess exposure to sunlight.
  • Salivary gland. Cancer of the salivary glad has been associated with exposure to ionizing radiation, such as X rays. It is also associated with working in the rubber-making industry.
  • Oropharynx. Cancer of the oropharynx, particularly in young people, has been associated with exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is the virus that causes cervical cancer in women.

What other risk factors for cancer of the oral cavity are scientists studying?

Some studies have suggested that various sources of irritation to the mouth, such as broken or poorly fitting dentures, may increase the risk of oral cavity cancer. Some studies have also shown an increased risk of oral cavity cancer in people who use mouthwashes containing alcohol. Other studies have not confirmed this association. Scientists are also studying the risk of other viruses, including the Epstein-Barr virus (a very common virus that causes infectious mononucleosis, also called "mono") and herpes simplex virus. Additional research is needed to determine the role, if any, these factors may have in the development of cancer of the oral cavity.

What can I do to reduce my chances of getting cancer of the oral cavity?

To help reduce the risk of getting cancer of the oral cavity:

  • Do not smoke. If you currently smoke or use smokeless tobacco, quit. Avoid exposure to second hand smoke. For more information on quitting smoking, visit the NYS Smoker's Quitline at www.nysmokefree.com or call 1-866-NY-QUITS.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Choose a healthy diet to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains and eat less red and processed (e.g., bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, hot dogs) meats. These actions may reduce the risk of developing many types of cancer as well as other diseases.
  • Be aware of your family history and discuss any concerns with your health care provider.
  • If you work outdoors, avoid too much sunlight and use sunscreen.
  • Be aware of workplace health and safety rules and follow them.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits of medical imaging, such as CT scans, with your health care provider to avoid unnecessary exposure to ionizing radiation. This is particularly important for children.

How else can I reduce my risk for cancer?

The following may help reduce the risk of developing cancer:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Talk with your health care provider about recommended cancer screenings.

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