Oral Cancer Prevention

Doctors cannot always explain why one person gets cancer and another does not. However, scientists have studied general patterns of cancer in the population to learn what things around us and what things we do in our lives may increase our chance of developing cancer.

Anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor; anything that decreases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a protective factor. Some of the risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, although you can choose to quit smoking, you cannot choose which genes you have inherited from your parents. Both smoking and inheriting specific genes could be considered risk factors for certain kinds of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Prevention means avoiding the risk factors and increasing the protective factors that can be controlled so that the chance of developing cancer decreases.

Although many risk factors can be avoided, it is important to keep in mind that avoiding risk factors does not guarantee that you will not get cancer. Also, most people with a particular risk factor for cancer do not actually get the disease. Some people are more sensitive than others are to factors that can cause cancer. Talk to your doctor about methods of preventing cancer that might be effective for you.

Purposes of this summary

The purposes of this summary on oral cancer prevention are to:

  • Give information on oral cancer and how often it occurs.


  • Describe oral cancer prevention methods.


  • Give current facts about which people or groups of people would most likely be helped by following oral cancer prevention methods.

You can talk to your doctor or health care professional about cancer prevention methods and whether these methods would be likely to help you.

Oral cancer prevention

Significance of oral cancer

Oral cancer may develop in any of 3 main areas:

  • Lips.


  • Oral cavity, which includes:


    • The front two thirds of the tongue.


    • The gingiva (gums).


    • The buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks).


    • The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue.


    • The hard palate (the roof of the mouth).


    • The retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth).


  • Oropharynx, which includes:


    • The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.


    • The back one-third of the tongue.


    • The soft palate.


    • The side and back walls of the throat.


    • The tonsils.

Salivary glands are located throughout the oral cavity and oropharynx.

The most common type of oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the thin, flat cells that line the oral cavity. Squamous cell carcinoma usually develops from lesions on the mucous membranes, including leukoplakia (white patches) and erythroplakia (red patches). Other types of oral cancer include lymphoma, sarcoma, melanoma, and salivary gland tumors.

Oral cancer occurs more often in men. The number of women with tongue cancer, however, has increased in recent years.

Oral cancer prevention

Oral cancer is sometimes associated with known risk factors for the disease. Many risk factors can be modified but not all can be avoided.

  • Tobacco and alcohol use: Tobacco use (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco) is responsible for most cases of oral cancer. Alcohol, particularly beer and hard liquor, are associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer. The risk of developing oral cancer is higher in people who use both tobacco and alcohol. Avoiding or stopping the use of tobacco decreases the risk of oral cancer. It is not known if stopping the use of alcohol decreases the risk of oral cancer.


  • Sun exposure: Exposure to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer, which occurs most often on the lower lip. Avoiding the sun and/or using a sunscreen or colored lipstick on the lips may decrease the risk of lip cancer.


  • Other factors: Some studies suggest that being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase the risk of oral cancer.


  • Chemoprevention: Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer or to keep it from coming back. Tobacco users who have had oral cancer often develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas, including the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and windpipe. Studies of chemoprevention in oral cancer are under way, including chemoprevention of leukoplakia and erythroplakia.

Source: National Cancer Institute, www.cancer.gov


Last Editorial Review: 7/30/2008