Oral Cancer 101

The Oral Cancer Foundation predicts 40,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease in 2012. The oral cancer category includes cancers that occur in the mouth, very back of the mouth (known as the oropharynx), and the lips.

Risk Factors

Tobacco and alcohol. Tobacco use (including smokeless chewing or spit tobacco products) and alcohol consumption are the two biggest risk factors for oral cancer. Together, they account for nearly 95 percent of oral cancer cases.

Historically, men were much more likely to develop oral cancer than women were. Although this is still true, more women are now smoking and they have narrowed the gap.

Infections. HPV (Human papillomavirus), which is also the primary cause of cervical cancer, is transmitted through sexual contact. More than 11,000 oral cancer cases are linked to HPV infection and health experts believe HPV is causing the increasing rate of oral cancer in younger adults. HIV is also a risk factor for oral cancer.

Other risk factors include:

  • Periodontal viruses, bacteria, and chronic gum disease
  • Sun exposure (cancer of the lip)
  • Personal history of cancer
  • Mouthwash containing alcohol
  • Lack of fruits and vegetables


A small red or white sore or patch in your mouth that lasts more than a week is a primary symptom of oral cancer , although having a sore doesn't mean you have cancer. Other symptoms include a sore on your lip that doesn't heal, bleeding in the mouth, difficulty or pain when swallowing, a lump in your neck, chronic earache, and numbness in your lower lip or chin.


Physicians typically remove oral cancer tumors (and, sometimes, nearby lymph nodes) surgically, especially if the cancer is caught early. You may also need radiation or chemotherapy if your cancer is advanced.

Cetuximab (Erbitux) is a targeted therapy that binds to cancer cells and interferes in their growth and ability to spread. Currently, most patients who receive targeted therapy also receive radiation or chemotherapy.


Oral cancer is highly preventable with some simple lifestyle precautions.

  • Don't smoke, and limit your alcohol consumption.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Health experts estimate a 50 percent risk reduction in oral cancer for each additional portion of fruits and vegetables you consume each day.
  • Wear a lip balm with sunscreen.
  • Use a condom. Men who use condoms every time they have sex are less likely to develop the HPV infection.


National Cancer Institute. "Oral Cancer." Web. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/oral/

National Cancer Institute. "What you need to know about oral cancer." Web. 23 December 2009.

Kingsley, Karl, O'Malley, Susan, Ditmyer, Marcia, and Chino, Michelle. "Analysis of Oral Cancer Epidemiology in the U.S. Reveals State-specific Trends: Implications for Oral Cancer Prevention." BMC Public Health. Medscape Medical News. Web. 5 June 2008.

Gandey, Allison. "Chronic Gum Disease May Increase Tongue Cancer Risk." Archives of Otolaryngolgy-Head Neck Surgery 133 (2007): 450-454. Medscape Medical News. Web. 23 May 2007. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/557125

"Many Americans Unaware of the Risks of Oral Cancer." Medscape Medical News. Web.

Oral Cancer Foundation. Web. http://oralcancerfoundation.org/

University of Maryland Medical Center. "Oral Cancer. Web. 1 February 2008.