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Cancer of the Mouth and Throat (cont.)

Mouth and Throat Cancer Causes

Tobacco use is by far the most common risk factor for cancers of the mouth and throat. Both smoking and "smokeless" tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco) increase the risk of developing cancer in the mouth or throat.

  • All forms of smoking are linked to these cancers, including cigarettes, cigars, and pipes. Tobacco smoke can cause cancer anywhere in the mouth and throat as well as in the lungs, the bladder, and many other organs in the body. Pipe smoking is particularly linked with lesions of the lips, where the pipe comes in direct contact with the tissue.
  • Smokeless or chewing tobacco is linked with cancers of the cheeks, gums, and inner surface of the lips. Cancers caused by smokeless tobacco use often begin as leukoplakia or erythroplakia.

Other risk factors for mouth and throat cancer include the following:

  • Alcohol use: At least three quarters of people who have a mouth and throat cancer consume alcohol frequently. People who drink alcohol frequently are six times more likely to develop one of these cancers. People who both drink alcohol and smoke often have a much higher risk than people who use only tobacco alone.
  • Sun exposure: Just as it increases the risk of skin cancers, ultraviolet radiation from the sun can increase the risk of developing cancer of the lip. People who spend a lot of time in sunlight, such as those who work outdoors, are more likely to have cancer of the lip.
  • Chewing betel nut: This prevalent practice in India and other parts of South Asia has been found to result in mucosa carcinoma of the cheeks. Mucosa carcinoma accounts for less than 10% of oral cavity cancers in the United States but is the most common oral cavity cancer in India.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection: Several strains of HPV are associated with cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, and penis. Some types of HPVs are able to infect the tissues of the mouth and throat. Cancer at the base of the tongue, at the back of the throat, in the tonsils, or in the soft palate is associated with HPV infection.

These are risk factors that can be avoided in some cases. For example, one can choose to not smoke, thus lowering the risk of mouth and throat cancer. The following risk factors are outside of a person's control:

  • Age: The incidence of mouth and throat cancers increases with advancing age.
  • Sex: Mouth and throat cancer is twice as common in men as in women. This may be related to the fact that more men than women use tobacco and alcohol.

The relationship between these risk factors and an individual's risk is not well understood. Many people who have no risk factors develop mouth and throat cancer. Conversely, many people with several risk factors do not. In large groups of people, these factors are linked with higher incidence of oropharyngeal cancers.

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