Risk Factors for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers

A risk factor is anything that changes a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers.

There are different kinds of risk factors. Some, such as your age or race, can’t be changed. Others may be related to personal choices such as smoking, drinking, or diet. Some factors influence risk more than others. But risk factors don’t tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even many, does not mean that a person will get the disease. Not having any risk factors doesn’t mean that you won’t get it, either.

Some people who have oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer have few or no known risk factors, and others who have risk factors never develop the disease. Even if someone does have risk factors, it’s impossible to know for sure how much they contributed to causing the cancer.

Tobacco and alcohol

Tobacco and alcohol use are 2 of the strongest risk factors for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers.

Tobacco use

Most people with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers use tobacco, and the risk of developing these cancers is related to how much and how long they smoked or chewed.

Smokers are many times more likely than non-smokers to develop these cancers. Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes can cause cancers anywhere in the mouth or throat. It can also cause cancers of the larynx (voice box), lungs, esophagus (swallowing tube), kidneys, bladder, and many other organs.

Pipe smoking is linked to a very high risk for cancer in the part of the lips that touch the pipe stem.

It’s important for smokers who have been treated for oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer to quit smoking, even if their cancer seems to be cured. Continuing to smoke greatly increases their risk of developing a second cancer in the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), or lung.

Oral tobacco products (snuff, dip, spit, chew, or dissolvable tobacco) are linked with cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface of the lips. Using oral tobacco products for a long time is linked to a very high risk. These products also cause gum disease, destruction of the bone sockets around teeth, and tooth loss. It’s also important for people who have been treated for oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer to give up all oral tobacco products.

Please call us for help quitting tobacco or see How to Quit Smoking or Smokeless Tobacco for more information.