The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 30,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015. Oral cancer is most often found in the tongue, the lips and the floor of the mouth. 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.
Chances of successfully treating oral cancer are highest when it is found early. Our team of experts in the Oral Cancer Prevention Clinic works closely together to detect and diagnose oral cancer in its early stages.
Oral Cancer Types
Almost all cancers of the mouth occur in squamous cells, the type of cells that line the mouth, tongue and lips. These are called squamous cell carcinomas (cancers). Not all tumors in the mouth are cancer. Some are benign (not cancer), and some are precancerous, meaning they may become cancer.
Oral Cancer Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting oral cancer is a risk factor. The main risk factors for oral cancer are:
Tobacco use: Most people with oral cancer use tobacco in some form. The risk increases with the length of the habit and the amount of tobacco used. Specifically, pipe smoking increases the risk for cancer of the lip and the soft palate. People who use chewing tobacco or snuff are more likely to develop cancer of the gums, cheek and lips. Living with a smoker or working in a smoking environment can cause secondhand or passive smoking, which also may increase risk.
Alcohol: Most people with oral cancer are heavy drinkers, consuming more than 21 alcoholic drinks each week. People who drink alcohol and smoke are six times as likely to get oral cancer as people who do not drink. The combination of tobacco and alcohol is particularly dangerous.
Other risk factors include:
- Gender: About two thirds of people with oral cancer are men.
- Race: The risk of oral cancer is higher for African-Americans.
- Age: These cancers are found most often in people over 45.
- Prolonged sun exposure (lip cancer)
- Long-term irritation caused by ill-fitting dentures
- Poor nutrition, especially a diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Immunosuppressive drugs
- Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Previous head and neck cancer
- Radiation exposure
- Lichen planus, a disease 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
Not everyone with risk factors gets oral cancer. However, if you have risk factors, you should discuss them with your doctor.
Oral Cancer Prevention
Cancers of the mouth are among the most preventable cancers. One of the most important things you can do is visit a dentist once a year for a complete oral examination.
To minimize your risk of developing oral cancer:
- Avoid tobacco in all forms.
- Drink alcohol in moderation
- Remove your dentures at night and clean them daily
- Have dentures evaluated by a dentist at least every five years
- Limit sun exposure; wear a lip balm with sunscreen and a hat with a brim
- Eat a well-rounded, healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables
Behavioral and lifestyle changes can help prevent oral cancer. Visit our prevention and screening section to learn how to manage your risk.
In rare cases, oral can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.