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Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 07/03/2014

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, and includes the back one-third of the tongue, the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils. The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (the tube that goes from the throat to the stomach). Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus.

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

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Use of tobacco products and drinking too much alcohol 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. Risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

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.
  • A dull pain behind the breastbone.
  • Cough.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Ear pain.
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck.
  • A change in voice.

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.

  • 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 may be 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.

  • 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).

  • PET scan (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radionuclide 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.

  • 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 core needle biopsy is usually done to remove tissue using a wide 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.
    • 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.

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

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

  • The stage and grade of the cancer.
  • Where the tumor is in the body.
  • Whether the tumor is associated with HPV infection.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage and grade of the cancer.
  • Where the tumor is in the body.
  • Keeping the patient's ability to speak and swallow as normal as possible.
  • The patient's general health.