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NM EPHT Health Effects: Oral and Pharyngeal Cancers

Oral and pharyngeal cancers in New Mexico

In New Mexico, we track the oral and pharyngeal cancers (also called mouth and throat cancers, respectively) incidence rate among all New Mexicans. This rate is used to measure how often new oral and pharyngeal cancers happen among New Mexicans during a specific time period, such as a year. The rate is determined by counting how many newly diagnosed oral and pharyngeal cancers happen in every 100,000 New Mexicans during a specific time period.

What are oral and pharyngeal cancers?

Oral and pharyngeal cancers are a cancer that forms in tissues of the lips, mouth, tongue, salivary glands, tonsils, and pharynx. It accounts for roughly 2-3 percent of all cancers newly diagnosed in the U.S. each year, and about 1% of all annual cancer deaths. Oral and Pharyngeal Anatomy

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What causes oral and pharyngeal cancers?

It's not clear what causes oral and pharyngeal cancers. Doctors know that the disease begins when some oral and pharyngeal cells acquire mutations in their DNA (genetic material). The mutations tell the cells to grow and divide rapidly. The accumulating abnormal cells form a tumor that can extend beyond the oral and pharyngeal. Some cells can break off and spread (metastasize) to distant parts of the body.

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What are the signs and symptoms of oral and pharyngeal cancers?

Signs and symptoms of oral and pharyngeal cancers may include:

  • A sore that doesn't heal
  • A lump or thickening of the skin or lining of your mouth
  • A white or reddish patch on the inside of your mouth
  • Loose teeth or poorly fitting dentures
  • Tongue or jaw pain 
  • Difficult or painful chewing or swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Feeling that something is caught in your throat

How are oral and pharyngeal cancers diagnosed?

Tests and procedures to diagnosis oral and pharyngeal cancers include a physical exam by a doctor or dentist, and tissue biopsy.

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Who is at risk for oral and pharyngeal cancers?

It is estimated that over 40,000 people will be newly diagnosed with oral and pharyngeal cancers in the U.S during 2012, of which roughly 70 percent of cases will occur in males and 50 percent among persons aged 62 years and older. The remaining 50 percent of cases occur primarily in persons aged 36-61 years.

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What are the risk factors for oral and pharyngeal cancers?

Factors that can increase a person's risk of oral and pharyngeal cancers include:

  • Tobacco use of any kind, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Excessive sun exposure to your lips
  • Previous cancer or radiation treatments in the head or neck area

You can learn about known and probable carcinogens from Known and Probable Human Carcinogens at www.cancer.org (external site).

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Can oral and pharyngeal cancers be prevented?

There's no proven way to prevent mouth or throat cancers. However, the risk can be reduced through the following healthy habits:

  • Do not smoke or use tobacco. Using tobacco, whether smoked or chewed, exposes the cells in the mouth to dangerous cancer-causing chemicals. If you don't use tobacco, don't start.  If you do smoke or use tobacco, talk to your doctor about strategies for quitting. Medications and counseling are available to help you quit.
    You can also call the 1-800-QUIT NOW (1 800-784-8669) hotline to access cessation services available to New Mexicans. Services include sessions in English or Spanish, programs for adults and youth, free cessation items and a personal quit plan.
  • Do not drink alcohol or drink in moderation, if at all. Chronic excessive alcohol use can irritate the cells in your mouth, making them vulnerable to mouth cancer. If you are a heavy drinker, talk to your doctor about ways to reduce your consumption of alcohol or how to quit drinking alcohol.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Choose a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. The vitamins and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables may help reduce the risk of mouth cancer.
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure to your lips. Wear protection such as an SPF when you are outdoors. Avoid being outdoors during when UV radiation is strongest.
  • See your dentist regularly. As part of a routine dental exam, a dentist will inspect the entire mouth for abnormal areas that may indicate precancerous changes.

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Is the occurrence of oral and pharyngeal cancers changing over time?

Yes, the rate at which oral and pharyngeal cancers are newly diagnosed in the U.S. generally has been decreasing over time. Between 1990 and 2009, oral and pharyngeal cancers incidence rates decreased by roughly 50%.

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Incidence of oral and pharyngeal cancers in New Mexico

The incidence of oral and pharyngeal cancers in New Mexico has declined by about 20% between 1990 and 2009. Oral and pharyngeal cancers incidence rates in Non Hispanic Whites are 2 and 3 times higher than those in Hispanics and American Indians, respectively.

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