Español
Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER
  • View entire document
  • Print
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Pinterest

Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

General Information About Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx.

The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth. It includes the following:

The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and ends where the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (tube from the throat to the stomach) begin. Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus.

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.

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. Sometimes more than one cancer can occur in the oropharynx and in other parts of the oral cavity, nose, throat, larynx (vocal cords), trachea, or esophagus at the same time.

Most oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are the thin, flat cells that line the inside of the oropharynx.

Smoking or being infected with human papillomavirus can increase the risk of oropharyngeal cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

The most common risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

Other risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables.
  • Drinking maté, a stimulant drink common in South America.
  • Chewing betel quid, a stimulant commonly used in parts of Asia.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information:

Signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include a lump in the neck and a sore throat.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by oropharyngeal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A sore throat that does not go away.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Trouble opening the mouth fully.
  • Trouble moving the tongue.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Ear pain.
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck.
  • A change in voice.
  • Coughing up blood.

Sometimes oropharyngeal cancer does not cause early signs or symptoms.

Tests that examine the mouth and throat are used to help detect (find), diagnose, and stage oropharyngeal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and history : An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as swollen lymph nodes in the neck or anything else that seems unusual. The medical doctor or dentist does a complete exam of the mouth and neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken.
  • PET-CT scan : A procedure that combines the pictures from a positron emission tomography (PET) scan and a computed tomography (CT) scan. The PET and CT scans are done at the same time with the same machine. The combined scans give more detailed pictures of areas inside the body than either scan gives by itself. A PET-CT scan may be used to help diagnose disease, such as cancer, plan treatment, or find out how well treatment is working.
    • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye is injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
    • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. A fine-needle biopsy is usually done to remove a sample of tissue using a thin needle.

    The following procedures may be used to remove samples of cells or tissue:

    • Endoscopy : A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth or nose. An endoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove abnormal tissue or lymph node samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of disease. The nose, throat, back of the tongue, esophagus, stomach, voice box, windpipe, and large airways will be checked. The type of endoscopy is named for the part of the body that is being examined. For example, pharyngoscopy is an exam to check the pharynx.
    • Laryngoscopy : A procedure in which the doctor checks the larynx (voice box) with a mirror or with a laryngoscope. A laryngoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing.
    • Oral brush exam: A procedure in which the medical doctor or dentist uses a small brush to remove cells that may be cancer. The cells are checked under a microscope for signs of disease.

    If cancer is found, the following test may be done to study the cancer cells:

    • HPV test : A laboratory test used to check the sample of tissue for certain types of HPV infection. This test is done because oropharyngeal cancer can be caused by the HPV virus.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

The prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • The number and size of lymph nodes with cancer.
  • Whether the patient has HPV infection of the oropharynx.
  • Whether the patient has a history of smoking for more than ten pack years.

Oropharyngeal tumors related to HPV infection have a better prognosis and are less likely to recur than tumors not linked to HPV infection.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • Keeping the patient's ability to speak and swallow as normal as possible.
  • The patient's general health.

Patients with oropharyngeal cancer have an increased risk of another cancer in the head or neck. This risk is increased in patients who continue to smoke or drink alcohol after treatment.

See the following PDQ summaries for more information:

  • Updated: March 19, 2015