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The majority of oral cancers arise in the squamous cells, which line the mouth, tongue, gums and lips. These are called squamous cell carcinomas (cancers). Not all tumors or growths in the mouth are cancer, however. 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. 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. 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 six times 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 ill-fitting dentures
- Poor nutrition, especially a diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Immunosuppressive drugs
- 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
- Several genetic disorders such as Fanconi’s Anemia or Dyskeratosis Congenita
Oral Cancer Prevention
Oral cancers are among the most preventable cancers. Some ways to minimize your risk of developing oral cancer include:
- Avoid tobacco in all forms.
- Visit a dentist at least once a year for a complete oral examination.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation.
- If you have dentures, remove them at night and clean them daily. Have them 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.
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, 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?
At MD Anderson, your care for oral cancer is personalized. Your cancer care team, will communicate closely and work together, and with you, to customize your care, including the most advanced therapies with the least impact on your body.
We offer new strategies to maintain dental and oral health treatment. Our highly specialized speech pathologists and therapists are among the most experienced in the nation, particularly in the newest methods of voice restoration and speech.
And at MD Anderson, you're surrounded by the strength of the nation's largest and most experienced comprehensive cancer center, which has all the services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
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Prevention & Screening
Many cancers can be prevented with lifestyle changes and regular screening.