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Am I At Risk for Oral Cancer?

All forms of tobacco products increase your risk for oral cancer.

There is no way to know for sure if you're going to get oral cancer. Certain factors can make you more likely than someone else to get it. These are called risk factors. However, just because you have 1 or more risk factors doesn't mean you will get oral cancer. In fact, you can have all the risk factors and still not get it. Or you can have no known risk factors and get it.

If you agree with any of the following bolded statements, you are at an increased risk for oral cancer. Each time you agree with the statement, ask yourself if you are doing all you can to control that risk factor. It may seem hard, but your efforts can have a big payoff in terms of your health and quality of life. Ask your doctors and family and friends to help you think of ways you can lower your risk of oral cancer.

I use or have used tobacco products.

All these ways of using tobacco greatly increase your chance of getting oral cancer:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe

  • Chewing tobacco

  • Dipping snuff

Tobacco use is a serious risk factor. Most people who get oral cancer use tobacco. Why does it occur? Because tobacco contains substances called carcinogens, which harm cells in your mouth. After a while, these damaged cells may turn into cancer. People who use snuff have a much higher risk of cancer in the lips, cheeks, and gums. The younger you were when you started using tobacco and the longer you've used it, the greater your risk.

I drink or used to drink a lot of alcohol.

Drinking a lot of alcohol increases your risk of oral cancer. "A lot" means 2 or more drinks a day. If you drink a lot of alcohol and use tobacco products, you have the greatest risk of getting oral cancer. It is thought that alcohol makes the cells in your mouth more susceptible to changes. These changes can lead to cancer, especially when combined with tobacco use.

I spend a lot of time in the sun.

Exposure to sun increases your risk of lip cancer.

I have erythroplakia.

Erythroplakias are raised, red patches that can grow on the inside of your mouth. The red patch can turn into cancer. In fact, most of these lesions are found to be cancerous or will develop into cancer. The most common cause of erythroplakia is tobacco use. 

I have leukoplakia.

Leukoplakias are white patches that can grow inside your mouth or throat. If you use tobacco and drink a lot of alcohol, you may get this. According to the American Cancer Society, up to 20% of these lesions are either found to be cancerous or may develop into cancer if not treated. Avoiding tobacco and alcohol can help lower your chances of getting leukoplakia and oral cancer. Having your doctor regularly check your mouth can help make sure that a leukoplakia is treated before it develops into cancer.

I have HPV (human papillomavirus).

Human papillomaviruses (HPV) are a group of more than 150 related viruses. Most HPV types cause warts on various parts of the body, but a few HPV types seem to be involved in some cancers, including some oral cancers. HPV virus may be found in two-thirds of oropharyngeal cancers. This increase is thought to be because of changes in sexual practices, particularly increases in oral sex. 

I have another risk factor for oral cancer.

Other factors have also been linked to having oral cancer. Here's a list of the ones you can control. Changing these risks will help you offset risks you can't control:

  • Not taking good care of your teeth and gums.

  • Poorly fitted dentures that rub the inside of the cheeks or the tongue. Poorly fitted dentures can trap cancer-causing substances, such as tobacco particles.  

  • A poor diet. You should eat a healthy diet that includes five servings of vegetables and fruits every day. 

I have Fanconi anemia or dyskeratosis congenita.

People with either of these inherited conditions have a high risk of developing oral or throat cancer. These conditions are caused by inherited defects in certain genes. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Dozier, Tennille, RN, BSN, RDMS
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 11/29/2013
© 2013 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare provider's instructions.
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