Doctors cannot always explain why one person gets cancer and another does not. However, scientists have studied general patterns of cancer in the population to learn what things around us and what things we do in our lives may increase our chance of developing cancer.
Anything that increases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a risk factor; anything that decreases a person's chance of developing a disease is called a protective factor. Some of the risk factors for cancer can be avoided, but many cannot. For example, although you can choose to quit smoking, you cannot choose which genes you have inherited from your parents. Both smoking and inheriting specific genes could be considered risk factors for certain kinds of cancer, but only smoking can be avoided. Prevention means avoiding the risk factors and increasing the protective factors that can be controlled so that the chance of developing cancer decreases.
Although many risk factors can be avoided, it is important to keep in mind that avoiding risk factors does not guarantee that you will not get cancer. Also, most people with a particular risk factor for cancer do not actually get the disease. Some people are more sensitive than others are to factors that can cause cancer. Talk to your doctor about methods of preventing cancer that might be effective for you.
The purposes of this summary on oral cancer prevention are to:
You can talk to your doctor or health care professional about cancer prevention methods and whether these methods would be likely to help you.
Oral cancer may develop in any of 3 main areas:
Salivary glands are located throughout the oral cavity and oropharynx.
The most common type of oral cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which begins in the thin, flat cells that line the oral cavity. Squamous cell carcinoma usually develops from lesions on the mucous membranes, including leukoplakia (white patches) and erythroplakia (red patches). Other types of oral cancer include lymphoma, sarcoma, melanoma, and salivary gland tumors.
Oral cancer occurs more often in men. The number of women with tongue cancer, however, has increased in recent years.
Oral cancer is sometimes associated with known risk factors for the disease. Many risk factors can be modified but not all can be avoided.
Tobacco and Alcohol Use: Tobacco use (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco) is responsible for most cases of oral cancer. Alcohol, particularly beer and hard liquor, are associated with an increased risk of developing oral cancer. The risk of developing oral cancer is higher in people who use both tobacco and alcohol. Avoiding or stopping the use of tobacco decreases the risk of oral cancer. It is not known if stopping the use of alcohol decreases the risk of oral cancer.
Sun Exposure: Exposure to sunlight may increase the risk of lip cancer, which occurs most often on the lower lip. Avoiding the sun and/or using a sunscreen or colored lipstick on the lips may decrease the risk of lip cancer.
Other Factors: Some studies suggest that being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) may increase the risk of oral cancer.
Chemoprevention: Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other agents to prevent or delay the growth of cancer or to keep it from coming back. Tobacco users who have had oral cancer often develop second cancers in the oral cavity or nearby areas, including the nose, throat, vocal cords, esophagus, and windpipe. Studies of chemoprevention in oral cancer are under way, including chemoprevention of leukoplakia and erythroplakia.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
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PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.
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A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether a certain drug or nutrient can prevent cancer. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients and those who are at risk for cancer. During prevention clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new prevention method and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new method is better than one currently being used, the new method may become "standard." People who are at high risk for a certain type of cancer may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.Physicians version: CDR0000062837