Overview of Oral Cancer

Oral cancer, or mouth cancer, can develop in any part of the mouth, including the lips, tongue, hard and soft palates, salivary glands, lining of the cheeks, floor of the mouth (under the tongue), gums, and teeth. It is often discussed with oropharyngeal cancer, which pertains to cancer of the throat area at the back of the mouth. Most often, tumors begin on the floor of the mouth, on the tongue, or in the surface areas of the mouth.

Oral and oropharyngeal cancer are similar in symptoms and treatment. In these types of cancer, cancer cells spread through the lymphatic system, and can recur in other areas, particularly if post-treatment recommendations are not followed.

Incidence and Prevalence of Oral Cancer

Approximately 43,250 cases of oral cancer (oral cavity and pharynx) are diagnosed in the United States each year, and about 8,000 people will die from these diseases.

Oral and oropharyngeal cancers are roughly twice as common in men as in women, and the conditions occur more often in African-Americans than Caucasians. Hungary and France have higher oral cancer rates than the United States and Mexico and Japan have lower rates. Rates of oral cancer in the United States have increased in recent years.

Oral Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Risk factors for oral and oropharyngeal cancers include the use of tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, and dipping snuff. According to the American Cancer Society, 90 percent of patients who develop mouth cancer use tobacco, and smokers are 6 times more likely to develop oral cancer than nonsmokers. The longer patients use tobacco, the higher the risk. Secondhand smoke is a related risk factor.

Alcohol use also increases oral and oropharyngeal cancer risk. According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol users account for 75 to 80 percent of all oral cancer patients. People who use tobacco and alcohol simultaneously run the most serious risk for developing these cancers.

Sun and ultraviolet light can cause cancer of the lip. In many cases, patients who develop this type of cancer work outside in the direct sun.

Other risk factors associated with oral and oropharyngeal cancers include HPV infection, Plummer-Vinson syndrome (a rare condition of iron deficiency and abnormalities in the oral cavity), a poor diet, and some medications used to treat immune system diseases and patients who have undergone an organ transplant.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 07 Sep 2006

Last Modified: 28 Sep 2015