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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Oral cancer is cancer anywhere in the front of the mouth. It includes any cancer on the lips, tongue, inside surface of the cheeks, hard palate (the front of the roof of the mouth), or gums. Cancers in the back of the mouth, such as on the soft palate (the back of the roof of the mouth) or the back of the throat, are not considered oral cancer. Oral cancer is a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma, in which surface cells grow and divide in an uncontrolled way.

Oral cancer occurs more often in men than in women. The number of new cases of oral cancer has been slowly decreasing over the past two decades.

Oral cancer is strongly associated with smoking or chewing tobacco: About 90% of people with oral cancer use tobacco. The risk increases with the amount and length of tobacco use. Alcohol use and spending too much time in the sun also increase the risk of oral cancer.

People with oral cancer are more likely to develop cancer of the larynx (voice box), esophagus, or lung. In fact, 15% percent of oral cancer patients are diagnosed with one of these other cancers at the same time. About 10% to 40% of patients will later develop one of these other cancers or another oral cancer.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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