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General Information About Oral Cancer

Oral cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the lips, oral cavity, or oropharynx.

Oral cancer may develop in any of the following areas:

  • Lips.
  • Oral cavity:
    • The front two thirds of the tongue.
    • The gingiva (gums).
    • The buccal mucosa (the lining of the inside of the cheeks).
    • The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue.
    • The hard palate (the front of the roof of the mouth).
    • The retromolar trigone (the small area behind the wisdom teeth).

    cdr0000716338.jpg
    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.
  • Oropharynx:
    • The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.
    • The back one third of the tongue.
    • The soft palate (the back of the roof of the mouth).
    • The side and back walls of the throat.
    • The tonsils.

Most oral cancers start in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that line the lips, oral cavity, and oropharynx. Cancer that forms in squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about oral cancer:

  • Oral Cancer Prevention
  • Lip and Oral Cavity Cancer Treatment

The number of new cases of oral cancer and the number of deaths from oral cancer have been decreasing slowly.

The number of new cases and deaths from oral cancer has slowly decreased over the past 30 years. However, the number of new cases of oral cancer caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection has increased. One kind of HPV, called HPV 16, is often passed from one person to another during sexual activity.

Although oral cancer occurs in all adults, it occurs most commonly in older adults. Also, oral cancer occurs more often in blacks than in whites and in men than in women.

Tobacco and alcohol use can affect the risk of developing oral cancer.

Anything that increases the chance of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. People who think they may be at risk should discuss this with their doctor. Risk factors for oral cancer include the following:

  • Using tobacco products (includes cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless and chewing tobacco).
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Chewing betel nuts.
  • Being infected with a certain type of human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Being exposed to sunlight (lip cancer only).
  • Being male.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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