Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer Risk

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx do not seem to get the media attention that other cancers do; nor do they garner the same level of public awareness.

Yet every year, 42,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with oral cancer. In some parts of the world, that statistic is much higher. According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, oral cancer claims the life of one person every hour. Determining if you are at risk for oral cancer is an important factor in early detection and treatment. 

Oral Cancer Risk Factors

Although anyone can develop oral cancer, researchers have identified several risk factors for the disease.

“One of the biggest oral cancer risk factors is chronic use of tobacco, including cigarettes and chewing tobacco,” says Lanceford Chong, MD, medical director of radiation oncology at the Western Regional Medical Center, Cancer Treatment Centers of America. In addition to smoking, chronic and excessive use of alcohol increases your risk of developing oral cancer.

Although smoking is still considered the biggest risk for developing oral cancer involving the gums, cheeks, roof of the mouth and front of the tongue, causes of cancer of the mouth and throat are changing. Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of oral cancer that develops in the throat or floor of the tongue. Oropharyngeal cancer is now believed to be primarily caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that often does not cause any symptoms. But certain strains of the virus, such as HPV16, are thought to be a risk factor for some types of cancer, including HPV.

Chong notes the rise in oropharyngeal cancer for the past three decades, particularly in people under the age of 50. He says, “HPV may account for 70 to 80 percent of oropharyngeal cancers.”

Decreasing Your Chances of Getting Oral Cancer

According to statistics from the Oral Cancer Foundation, males are diagnosed with oral cancer more often than females (though the rate of diagnosed women is increasing). While gender is a risk factor that you cannot control, there are ways to reduce other risk factors for the disease.

For example, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol intake can lower your risk substantially. As reported by the Fox Chase Cancer Center, quitting smoking decreases your chances of developing oral cancer by 50 percent within five years.

Oral cancer that develops on the lip may be due to exposure to ultraviolet radiation. Using sunscreen may help cut your risk of oral cancer. Chong adds, “Avoiding engaging in oral sex with [someone] who is known to be HPV positive also lowers a person’s risk of developing oral cancer.”

Early Detection is Critical

Many cases of oral cancer are not discovered until they are at an advanced stage, having spread to surrounding lymph nodes — which makes it harder to cure. The five-year survival rate in these cases is less than 60 percent, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Awareness of available resources and screening tests may be lacking. “Although all adults should be screened annually for oral cancer, it is particularly important for individuals with risk factors, such as smoking or heavy alcohol use, and if oral HPV is suspected,” says Chong.

Screening for oral cancer can be performed by your primary care doctor or be performed as part of a general dental exam. Screening is quick and painless. In addition to a visual check of the oral cavity, the dentist or doctor may use equipment designed for detecting abnormal tissue in the mouth. 

Next Steps

  • If you smoke or use smokeless tobacco, you will benefit if you devote yourself to quitting. Medication, hypnosis and smoking cessation classes are all techniques that may help you quit.
  • Be aware of sores in your mouth that do not heal within a few weeks, including those on your gums and cheeks. If any sores are cause for concern, see your dentist or doctor for screening.

Lower your risk of HPV infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using latex condoms during sexual activity reduces your risk of HPV infection (but does not provide 100 percent protection against infection).

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