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Oral Cancer Prevention (PDQ®)

Patient Version

General Information About Oral Cavity Cancer and Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oral cavity cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are diseases in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the mouth or throat.

The term oral cancer is used to describe cancer that forms in the tissues of the oral cavity or the oropharynx.

Oral cavity cancer forms in any of these tissues of the oral cavity:

Anatomy of the oral cavity; drawing shows the lip, hard palate, soft palate, retromolar trigone, front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva, buccal mucosa, and floor of mouth. Also shown are the teeth, uvula, and tonsil.
Anatomy of the oral cavity. The oral cavity includes the lips, hard palate (the bony front portion of the roof of the mouth), soft palate (the muscular back portion of the roof of the mouth), retromolar trigone (the area behind the wisdom teeth), front two-thirds of the tongue, gingiva (gums), buccal mucosa (the inner lining of the lips and cheeks), and floor of the mouth under the tongue.

Oropharyngeal cancer forms in tissues of the oropharynx:

  • The middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth.
  • The back third of the tongue.
  • The soft palate (the back, soft part of the roof of the mouth).
  • The side and back walls of the throat.
  • The tonsils.
Anatomy of the pharynx; drawing shows the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx. Also shown are the nasal cavity, oral cavity, esophagus, trachea, and larynx.
Anatomy of the pharynx (throat). The three parts of the pharynx are the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.

Most oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers start in squamous cells (thin, flat cells) that line the oral cavity and oropharynx. Cancer that forms in squamous cells is called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma can form from lesions on the mucous membranes (the lining of the mouth and throat). These lesions include leukoplakia (an abnormal white patch of cells) and erythroplakia (an abnormal red patch of cells).

In Western countries, such as the United States, the most common areas for oral cancer are the tongue and the floor of the mouth.

Oral cancer is more common in men than in women.

Men are more than twice as likely as women to have oral cancer and die from it.

  • Updated: April 24, 2015