Oral cancers can form in the mouth or the oropharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the mouth). Oral cavity cancer includes cancers of the front of the tongue, the gums, the lining of the cheeks, the bottom of the mouth, the roof of the mouth and the small area behind the wisdom teeth. Oropharyngeal cancers include cancers of the middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth, the back of the tongue, the side and back walls of the throat and the tonsils.
Here’s a list of five things to know about preventing, diagnosing and treating these diseases.
1. Stop using tobacco — in any form
Cigarette smoking is a known cause of oral cancers, and numerous studies have shown that other forms of tobacco — including cigars, pipes, smokeless tobacco, bidis (a type of hand-rolled cigarette) and betel quid (also known as paan) — also can cause oral cancers.
The good news: your risk of oral cancer decreases within 1-4 years of quitting and continues to decrease the longer it has been since you quit. For some types of oral cancers, people who quit 10 to 20 years ago have about the same risk of oral cancer as people who have never used tobacco.
2. If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation
Alcohol is also known to cause oral cancers, and the risk is especially high in people who both drink alcohol and use tobacco. This increase in risk has been found with all types of alcohol, whether wine, beer or liquor. Similar to tobacco use, decreasing the amount of alcohol you drink can greatly reduce your risk of oral cancer.
3. If you notice something different in your mouth, ask your dentist or doctor to examine it
Your dentist or doctor can evaluate abnormal tissue to determine if it may be cancerous. Fortunately, there are some abnormalities that might eventually develop into cancer that can be detected and treated before they become cancer.
4. The HPV vaccine could greatly decrease the number of people who develop and die from oral cancers each year
Certain types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause some forms of oral cancer, in addition to several other types of cancer. The HPV vaccine can prevent infection with cancer-causing HPV types. The vaccine is recommended for both males and females. It is routinely given at age 11 or 12 but can be given beginning at age 9 through age 26. Unfortunately, many children and young adults in the United States still do not receive the vaccine.
5. Treatment is improving
New treatments for oral cancer — including improvements in surgical techniques, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy — have lengthened survival and improved recovery over the last few decades. Many people who have been diagnosed with oral cancer can now continue to live a full life after treatment.
Deborah M. Winn, PhD., Deputy Director, Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences, National Cancer Institute, [email protected]