Oral & Pharyngeal Cancer: Facts & Figures

Incidence in Minnesota:

Oral and pharyngeal cancer is decreasing slightly in MN

The incidence rate of oral and pharyngeal cancer in Minnesota decreased  about 2.0% per year from 1988 to 2003. After 2003, incidence increased about 1% per year. The decrease is most likely due to reduced tobacco usage over that time period. However, HPV-associated cancers of specific parts of the oral cavity and pharynx (such as the oropharynx) increased significantly since 1988.  National trends for oral and pharyngeal cancers are similar to Minnesota trends.

From 2011 to 2013, approximately 501 new cases of oral and pharyngeal cancer in males and 236 new cases in females were diagnosed in Minnesota residents each year.

Oral and pharyngeal cancer cases in Minnesota

Age-adjusted rate of new oral & pharyngeal cancer cases.
Age-adjusted rate of new oral & pharyngeal cancer cases.

Incidence rates for females have been relatively stable since 1988. The rate among males declined significantly from 1988 to 2003, but has increased since then. Over the last 10 years, the rate of oral and pharyngeal cancer has been increasing by about 1.5% per year among males and under 1% per year among females and the rate of oral and pharyngeal cancer is currently over two times higher among males than females. Most recently, the age-adjusted incidence rate of oral and pharyngeal cancer was 16.9 new cases per 100,000 males and 7.2 new cases per 100,000 females.

Oral and pharyngeal cancer cases in Minnesota, by age

Rates of new oral & pharyngeal cancer cases, aggregated from 2004 to 2014.
Rates of new oral & pharyngeal cancer cases, aggregated from 2004 to 2013.

The rate of oral and pharyngeal cancer increases with age for both sexes.  The highest incidence rates occur among males aged 80 years and older.

What is oral and pharyngeal cancer?

The oral cavity and pharynx help you breathe, talk, eat, chew, and swallow. The pharynx includes three parts: the back of the throat (oropharynx), the upper part of the throat behind the nose (nasopharynx), and the lower part of the throat that connects to the esophagus (hypopharynx). Cancer that begins in the mouth is called oral cancer (or cancer of the oral cavity). Cancer that begins in the pharynx is called pharyngeal cancer. Oral and pharyngeal cancer thus includes cancers of the lips, cheeks, gums, tongue, hard palate, tonsils, and the throat (pharynx). This does not include the larynx (voice box). 

What are risk factors for oral and pharyngeal cancer?

  • Tobacco use (smoking or chewing) and heavy alcohol use are the strongest known risk factors for oral and pharyngeal cancers. Smoking and drinking together dramatically increase risk.
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection is associated with squamous cell cancers of specific parts of the oral cavity and pharynx, mostly the throat and tonsils. More than 60% of cancers in these specific locations are thought to be related to HPV infection. HPV infections of the oral cavity and pharynx have no symptoms and only a small percentage of people with the infection will go on to develop cancer. HPV infection is also linked to squamous cell cancers of other anatomic sites (i.e., cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, and anus).
  • Occupational exposures: Long-term, intense workplace exposures to wood dust, textile dust, or nickel and chromium dust increases the risk of pharyngeal cancers.
  • Gender: Males are two times more likely than females to be diagnosed with oral cavity and pharyngeal cancer.
  • Ultraviolet (UV) light: sunlight and other UV light exposure increase the risk of cancer of the lip (a type of oral cancer).

How can oral and pharyngeal cancer be prevented?

Avoid tobacco and alcohol, the most important risk factors for these cancers. Limit exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, a risk factor for cancer of the lip. Avoid HPV infection which can be spread through oral sex. A vaccine is available against certain types of HPV and is recommended for both males and females before a person becomes sexually active. Avoid known occupational exposures that increase the risk of oral and pharyngeal cancer with long-term, intense doses.