Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Prevention (PDQ®)

Last modified: 2016-02-19
Last downloaded: 2016-09-29

   

What is prevention?

Cancer prevention is action taken to lower the chance of getting cancer. By preventing cancer, the number of new cases of cancer in a group or population is lowered. Hopefully, this will lower the number of deaths caused by cancer.

To prevent new cancers from starting, scientists look at risk factors and protective factors. Anything that increases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer risk factor; anything that decreases your chance of developing cancer is called a cancer protective factor.

Some risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, both smoking and inheriting certain genes are risk factors for some types of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Regular exercise and a healthy diet may be protective factors for some types of cancer. Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may lower your risk but it does not mean that you will not get cancer.

Different ways to prevent cancer are being studied, including:

  • Changing lifestyle or eating habits.
  • Avoiding things known to cause cancer.
  • Taking medicines to treat a precancerouscondition or to keep cancer from starting.

See the following PDQ summaries for information about screening, diagnosis, and treatment of oral cancer:


Back to Top  

General Information About Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

   

Oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are diseases in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the mouth or throat. Most oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers start in squamous cells (thin, flat cells) that line the oral cavity and oropharynx. Cancer that forms in squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma.

Oral cavity cancer forms in any of these tissues of the oral cavity:

Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.

Oropharyngeal cancer forms in any of these tissues of the oropharynx:

  • The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.
  • The back third of the tongue.
  • The soft palate (the back, soft part of the roof of the mouth).
  • The side and back walls of the throat.
  • The tonsils.
Anatomy of the pharynx (throat). The three parts of the pharynx are the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.

Lesions can form in the mucous membranes of the oral cavity and oropharynx. These lesions include the following:

These lesions may become cancer but this does not happen often.

  

Men are more than twice as likely as women to have oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer and die from it.


Back to Top 

Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Prevention

  

Avoiding risk factors and increasing protective factors may help prevent cancer.

Avoiding cancerrisk factors may help prevent certain cancers. Risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and not getting enough exercise. Increasing protective factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising may also help prevent some cancers. Talk to your doctor or other health care professional about how you might lower your risk of cancer.

Oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are two different diseases, but they have some risk factors in common.

  

The following are risk factors for oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer:

Tobacco use 

Using tobacco is the most common cause of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. The risk of these cancers is about 5 to 10 times higher for current smokers than for people who have never smoked.

The use of all types of tobacco, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco) can cause cancer of the oral cavity and oropharynx. For cigarette smokers, the risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day.

Alcohol use 

Using alcohol is also an important risk factor for oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer.

The risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer increases with the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per day. The risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer is about twice as high in people who have 3 to 4 alcoholic drinks per day and 5 times higher in people who have 5 or more alcoholic drinks per day compared with those who don't drink alcohol.

Tobacco and alcohol use 

The risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer is 2 to 3 times higher in people who use both tobacco and alcohol than it is in people who use only tobacco or only alcohol. The risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer is about 35 times higher in people who smoke 2 or more packs of cigarettes per day and have more than 4 alcoholic drinks per day than it is in people who have never smoked cigarettes or consumed alcohol.

Betel quid or gutka chewing 

Chewing betel quid or gutka (betel quid mixed with tobacco) has been shown to increase the risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. Betel quid contains areca nut, which is a cancer-causing substance. The risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer increases with how long and how often betel quid or gutka are chewed. The risk for oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer is higher when chewing gutka than when chewing betel quid alone. Betel quid and gutka chewing is common in many countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia, including China and India.

Personal history of head and neck cancer 

A personal history of head and neck cancer increases the risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer.

  

The following is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer:

HPV infection 

Being infected with certain types of HPV, especially HPV type 16, increases the risk of oropharyngeal cancer. HPV infection is spread mainly through sexual contact.

The risk of oropharyngeal cancer is about 15 times higher in people who have oral HPV 16 infection compared with people who do not have oral HPV 16 infection.

  

The following is a protective factor for oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer:

Quitting smoking 

Studies have shown that when people stop smoking cigarettes, their risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer decreases by one half (50%) within 5 years. Within 20 years of quitting, their risk of oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer is the same as for a person who never smoked cigarettes.

  

It is not clear whether avoiding certain risk factors will decrease the risk of oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer.

It has not been proven that stopping alcohol use will decrease the risk of oral cavity cancer or oropharyngeal cancer.

Getting an HPV vaccination greatly lessens the risk of oral HPV infection. It is not yet known whether getting an HPV vaccination at any age will decrease the risk of oropharyngeal cancer from HPV infection.

  

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to prevent cancer.

Cancer preventionclinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are done with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are done with people who have had cancer and are trying to prevent another cancer of the same type or to lower their chance of developing a new type of cancer. Other trials are done with healthy volunteers who are not known to have any risk factors for cancer.

The purpose of some cancer prevention clinical trials is to find out whether actions people take can prevent cancer. These may include eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, quitting smoking, or taking certain medicines, vitamins, minerals, or food supplements.

  

New ways to prevent oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are being studied in clinical trials.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials can be found in the Clinical Trials section of the NCI website. Check NCI's list of cancer clinical trials for oral cavity cancer prevention trials and oropharyngeal cancer prevention trials that are now accepting patients.


Back to Top Source: The National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq)