Cancer is a term used for diseases where abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. Cancer is not just one disease, but many diseases. There are more than 100 different types of cancer.
Oral cavity and pharyngeal cancers are one type of cancer. Review the FAQs below for more information about oral cavity and pharyngeal cancer.
Oral cancer can develop in any part of the oral cavity (tongue, gums, mouth, and lips) or the oropharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the mouth). Each year in the United States, more than 36,000 new cases of oral and pharyngeal cancer are diagnosed.
- Tobacco use. Tobacco use causes most oral cancers. Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes, or using smokeless tobacco (such as snuff and chewing tobacco) causes oral cancer. Heavy smokers who have smoked tobacco for a long time are most at risk for oral cancer. The risk is even higher for tobacco users who are heavy drinkers of alcohol. In fact, three out of four people with oral cancer have used tobacco, alcohol, or both.
- Heavy alcohol use. People who are heavy drinkers are more likely to develop oral cancer than people who don't drink alcohol. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol that a person drinks. The risk increases even more if the person both drinks alcohol and uses tobacco.
- HPV infection. Some members of the HPV family of viruses can infect the mouth and throat. These viruses are passed from person to person through sexual contact. Cancer at the base of the tongue, at the back of the throat, in the tonsils, or in the soft palate is linked with HPV infection.
- Sun. Cancer of the lip can be caused by exposure to the sun. Using a lotion or lip balm that has a sunscreen can reduce the risk. Wearing a hat with a brim can also block the sun's harmful rays. The risk of cancer of the lip increases if the person also smokes.
- Personal history of oral cancer. People who have had oral cancer are at increased risk of developing another oral cancer. Smoking increases this risk.
- Diet. Some studies suggest that not eating enough fruits and vegetables may increase the chance of getting oral cancer.
- Betel nut use. Betel nut use is most common in Asia, where millions chew the product. It's a type of palm seed wrapped with a betel leaf and sometimes mixed with spices, sweeteners, and tobacco. Chewing betel nut causes oral cancer. The risk increases even more if the person also drinks alcohol and uses tobacco.
The best way to minimize risk of developing these cancers is to avoid risk factors. These healthy behaviors can help prevent oral and pharyngeal cancers:
- Don’t use tobacco
- Avoid secondhand smoke
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Limit exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun
- Avoid tanning beds
- Choose a diet high in fruits and vegetables
- Maintain a healthy weight