Oral Cancer – Could You be Putting Yourself at Risk?

Did you know that cancers of the mouth and throat account for about three percent of all cancers in the United States? Did you also know that most oral cancers are largely preventable? However, there are certain risk factors that affect the likelihood of developing the disease, and some may surprise you. The use of tobacco products including smoking cigarettes, cigars or a pipe, chewing tobacco or dipping snuff can put you at greater risk for developing oral cancer. Tobacco use is a serious risk factor because it contains substances called carcinogens, which harm cells in your mouth. Drinking alcohol in excess can also increase your risk. If you are a frequent user of alcohol and tobacco products, you have the greatest risk of getting oral cancer. Sun exposure is another factor. People who spend a long time outdoors for work or play have the greater risk for developing lip cancer. A history of human papillomavirus infection has also been shown to be a risk factor. Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are a group of more than 100 related viruses which are involved with different types of cancer. For example, the majority of cervical cancers in women are related to certain HPV viruses. These same HPV virus types are also linked to some oral and oropharyngeal (throat) cancers. Oral cancers usually occur later in life but can affect younger individuals. Your dentist will usually examine your mouth for signs of oral cancer or other pathologies at your regular check-up. Self-exam can also be useful. Consult your dentist if you notice unusual lumps or bumps, red or white patches in your mouth that don’t go away, sores that are not healing, persistent soreness or pain, or difficulty swallowing. Avoiding the use of tobacco products or heavy alcohol use will dramatically decrease your chances of developing oral cancer. If you spend a lot of time in the sun, wear a lip balm with sunscreen. Other factors that you cannot control but still may influence your risk of developing oral cancer include:

  • Age: Oral cancer is typically a disease affecting older people, usually because of their longer exposure to other risk factors.
  • Gender: Oral cancer strikes men twice as often as it does women.
  • Race: African-American men are more likely to develop oral cancer than white, Hispanic or Asian men.
  • Heredity: Some people are genetically more prone to develop oral cancer.

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