NYU Langone doctors encourage the early detection of precancerous growths along with lifestyle changes to help prevent oropharyngeal cancer.
The incidence of oropharyngeal cancer appears to be rising, possibly because of a common viral infection known as human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is associated with more than two-thirds of new diagnoses of this cancer. Early detection of precancerous changes in the oropharynx caused by HPV may help prevent progression to cancer. Smoking and heavy alcohol use may also contribute to the development of oropharyngeal cancer.
NYU Langone oropharyngeal cancer specialists encourage dental check-ups every 6 to 12 months. At these visits, a dentist should examine not only the teeth and gums but also the soft tissue in and around the oral cavity, or mouth, and the oropharynx. The oropharynx refers to the back third of the tongue, the tonsils, the back of the throat, and the soft palate, which is the soft portion of the roof of the mouth.
A primary care doctor can also perform this exam. In addition, you can look at your mouth in the mirror every month to check for any unusual growths.
Some growths in the oral cavity and oropharynx can easily be identified by your doctor as noncancerous, or benign, by their appearance. Others need further evaluation. If the dentist or doctor finds any suspicious tissue, he or she refers you to an oropharyngeal cancer specialist, who can perform tests to determine whether a growth is cancerous.
Early detection of suspicious tissue can prevent oropharyngeal cancers, which sometimes develop from precancerous lesions in the tissue lining the oropharynx.
Precancerous cells may appear as white, red, or a combination of white and red patches in the oropharynx. Doctors can confirm a diagnosis of precancerous lesions by performing a biopsy, in which a small portion of tissue is removed for examination under a microscope. Precancerous growths are then managed by a doctor and may not turn into oropharyngeal cancer.
Many oropharyngeal cancers are linked to smoking cigarettes. NYU Langone doctors strongly urge people who smoke to quit. Perlmutter Cancer Center’s Tobacco Cessation Programs can provide assistance and resources to help you quit. After you’ve quit, precancerous lesions may shrink or even disappear.
Limit Alcohol Intake
Long-term, heavy alcohol use increases the odds of developing oropharyngeal cancer. A combination of heavy smoking and drinking greatly increases the risk.
If you use alcohol, NYU Langone doctors advise drinking it in moderation—no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women. Talk with your doctor about how to find support if you want to cut back.
Avoid HPV Infection
Research shows that infection with the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a significant risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer. HPV is usually transmitted through sexual contact, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. There are many different types of HPV. Low-risk strains can cause warts, and high-risk strains can lead to cancer.
Researchers believe that the HPV types that lead to oropharyngeal cancer may be especially transmitted through oral sex.
HPV vaccines protect against high-risk strains of the virus. They are most effective when given before a person becomes sexually active, by age 11 or 12. Researchers are currently studying how effective HPV vaccines are in preventing other forms of head and neck cancer.
Most people’s immune systems destroy HPV, but that’s not always the case. Lasting infections are more common in smokers, which may be because smoking damages the immune system or the cells that line the oral cavity. People with compromised immune systems, such as those with human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, may also be at risk of infection.
In addition to vaccination, doctors recommend limiting the number of sexual partners and using condoms when having vaginal, anal, or oral sex. This can help to reduce, but does not eliminate, the risk of becoming infected with HPV.
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