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It also can begin in the gums, the minor salivary glands, the lining of the lips and cheeks, the roof of the mouth or the area behind the wisdom teeth.
Most oral cancers arise in the squamous cells, which line the mouth, tongue, gums and lips. These are called squamous cell carcinomas (cancers).
Salivary gland cancers are not squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers develop deeper in the tissue. Most form from mucoepidermoid cells, which line the minor salivary glands.
Cancer can also develop in the bones of the mouth. Learn more about bone cancer.
Not all tumors or growths in the mouth are cancer. Some are benign (not cancer), while others are precancerous, meaning they may become cancer but are not currently cancer.
Oral cancer risk factors
Anything that increases your chances of getting cancer is called a risk factor. Many cases of oral cancers are linked to risk factors. Some patients will develop oral cancers without any known risk factors. The main risk factors for oral cancer are:
Tobacco use: Many people diagnosed with oral cancer use tobacco in some form. These include cigarettes, cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco. The longer people use tobacco and the amount they use increases that risk.
The type of tobacco people use can influence where oral cancer develops. Cigarette smoking can cause oral cancer anywhere in the mouth. People who use chewing tobacco or snuff are more likely to develop cancer of the gums, cheek and lips. Pipe smoking increases the risk for cancer of the lip and the soft palate. Living with a smoker or working in a smoking environment can cause secondhand or passive smoking, which also may increase risk.
Alcohol: Many people diagnosed with oral cancer are heavy drinkers, consuming more than 21 alcoholic drinks each week. The combination of tobacco and alcohol is particularly dangerous. People who drink alcohol and smoke are far more likely to get oral cancer than people who do not drink or smoke.
Other risk factors include:
- Gender: About two-thirds of people diagnosed with oral cancer are men.
- Age: These cancers are found most often in people over 45.
- Prolonged sun exposure, which can lead to lip cancer.
- Long-term irritation caused by poor dental hygiene, including irritation caused by ill-fitting dentures.
- Poor nutrition, especially a diet low in fruits and vegetables.
- Taking immunosuppressive drugs.
- Having a previous head and neck cancer.
- Lichen planus, an auto-immune condition that affects the cells that line the mouth.
- Drinking maté, a beverage made from a type of holly tree common in South America.
- Chewing quids of betel, a stimulant common in Asia.
- Several genetic disorders, including Fanconi’s Anemia and Dyskeratosis Congenita. Learn more about hereditary cancer syndromes.
- Graft vs. Host disease: This is a serious side effect of stem cell transplantation. It can cause immune cells to target tissue in the oral cavity and lead to oral cancer.
Oral cancer prevention
Many oral cancers can be prevented. Some ways to minimize the risk of developing oral cancer include:
- Avoiding tobacco in all forms.
- Visiting a dentist at least once a year for a complete oral examination.
- Drinking alcohol only in moderation.If you have dentures, removing them at night and clean them daily. Have them evaluated by a dentist at least every five years.
- Eating a well-rounded, healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Because early diagnosis gives you the best chance of successful treatment, the Oral Cancer Prevention Clinic provides a specialized setting for diagnosis, monitoring and treatment of precancerous lesions. New optical techniques, which are less-invasive alternatives to biopsy, may help find some oral cancers earlier.
Learn more about oral cancer:
Why choose MD Anderson for oral cancer treatment?
Where you go first for cancer treatment matters.
At MD Anderson, your care for oral cancer is personalized. Your care team in the Head and Neck Center will include a surgeon, medical oncologist and radiation oncologist. They will work together, and with you, to develop a care plan customized to your specific needs and wishes. They can offer the most advanced therapies and pay special attention to minimizing side effects.
Treatments may include advanced surgical and reconstructive surgery techniques; cutting-edge cancer drugs like immunotherapy and targeted therapy; and highly targeted radiation treatments including proton therapy. As a top-ranked cancer center, MD Anderson also has multiple clinical trials covering all stages of oral cancer. Some of these trials may not be available anywhere else.
Oral cancer care teams also include specialists who can help improve your quality of life during and after treatment. These include speech pathologists who can help you maximize your ability to speak, chew and swallow.
MD Anderson also has dentists who specialize in caring for cancer patients. They evaluate patients with oral cancer and conduct any pre-treatment procedures necessary for their long-term oral health. Dental care after oral cancer treatment can be particularly challenging, so these treatments are essential to your quality of life. Our dental team also crafts custom-made prosthetics for patients who have portions of their jaw or other bones removed as part of cancer treatment.
And at MD Anderson, you're surrounded by the strength of the nation's largest and most experienced comprehensive cancer center. From support groups to integrative medicine services to social work counseling, we have the services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
Cancer changed me. I see the beauty in all of this. I see life in a different perspective.
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Prevention & Screening
Many cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes and regular screening.