Oral Cancer Prevention (PDQ®)

As a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, a core part of our mission is to educate patients and the community about cancer. The following summary is trusted information from the NCI.

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 precancerous condition or to keep cancer from starting.

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

General Information About Oral Cancer

Oral cancer may form in any of three main areas:

  • Lips.
  • Oral cavity, which includes:
  • Oropharynx, which includes:
    • The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.
    • The back one-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.

Most oral cancers start in squamous cells (thin, flat cells) that line the lips, oral cavity, and oropharynx. Cancer that forms in squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma. Lesions on the mucous membranes (the lining of the mouth and throat), including leukoplakia (an abnormal white patch of cells) and erythroplakia (an abnormal red patch of cells), may develop into squamous cell carcinoma.

Most patients with oral cancer are men. However, the number of women in the United States diagnosed with tongue cancer has increased greatly over the past 20 years.

In Western countries, such as the United States, the most common areas for oral cancer are the tongue and the floor of the mouth. In parts of the world where chewing tobacco or betel nuts is common, oral cancer often forms in the retromolar trigone and buccal mucosa.

Oral Cancer Prevention

Avoiding cancer risk factors such as smoking, being overweight, and lack of exercise may help prevent certain cancers. 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.

Using tobacco is the leading cause of oral cancer.

All forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and chewing (smokeless) tobacco, are linked to oral cancer. The risk of oral cancer increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. Tobacco use is most likely to cause oral cancer in the floor of the mouth, but also causes cancer in the oral cavity and oropharynx and on the lips.

The risk of oral cancer is greater in people who use both tobacco and alcohol than it is in people who use only tobacco or only alcohol.

Tobacco users who have had oral cancer may develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas, including the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and trachea (windpipe).

Results from clinical trials have shown that when a person stops smoking cigarettes, the risk of oral cancer decreases by one-half (50%) within 5 years. Within 10 years of quitting, the risk of oral cancer is the same as for a person who never used tobacco.

Using alcohol is a major risk factor for oral cancer.

The risk of oral cancer increases with the number of alcoholic drinks consumed per day. Alcohol use is also a risk factor for leukoplakia (an abnormal white patch of cells) and erythroplakia (an abnormal red patch of cells). Leukoplakia and erythroplakia lesions on the mucous membranes may become cancer.

The risk of oral cancer is greater in people who use both alcohol and tobacco than it is in people who use only alcohol or only tobacco.

Results from clinical trials have not shown a decrease in the risk of oral cancer when a person stops drinking alcohol.

Being exposed to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer, which occurs most often on the lower lip. Avoiding the sun and/or using lip balm with sunscreen or using colored lipstick may decrease the risk of lip cancer.

Being infected with a certain type of human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase the risk of oral cancer.

Using marijuana may increase the risk of oral cancer. Marijuana use by a person with high-risk HPV infection may further increase the risk of oral cancer.

Eating a diet high in fruits and fiber-rich vegetables may lower the risk of developing oral cancer.

Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer.

Studies of chemoprevention are under way in patients at high risk for oral cancer, including those with precancerous oral lesions and those with a history of oral cancer. Check NCI's Cancer Clinical Trials Registry for chemoprevention trials for cancer of the lip and oral cavity and oropharynx.

Cancer prevention clinical trials are used to study ways to lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Some cancer prevention trials are conducted with healthy people who have not had cancer but who have an increased risk for cancer. Other prevention trials are conducted 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.

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 Web site. Check NCI's PDQ Cancer Clinical Trials Registry for lip and oral cavity cancer prevention trials and oropharyngeal cancer prevention trials that are now accepting patients.



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