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Oral Cancer Screening (PDQ®)

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:
    Anatomy of the oral cavity; drawing shows the lip, hard palate, soft palate, retromolar trigone, front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva, buccal mucosa, and floor of mouth. Also shown are the teeth, uvula, and tonsil.

    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:

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.

Date last modified: 2014-07-02

Date last modified: 2014-07-02

Date last modified: 2014-07-02

Changes to This Summary (07/02/2014)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Editorial changes were made to this summary.

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Date last modified: 2014-07-02

Last updated: 2014-07-16

Source: The National Cancer Institute's Physician Data Query (PDQ®) Cancer Information Summaries (http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq)