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Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ®)–Patient Version

General Information About Oropharyngeal Cancer

Key Points

  • Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx.
  • Smoking or being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) can increase the risk of oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include a lump in the neck and a sore throat.
  • Tests that examine the mouth and throat are used to help diagnose and stage oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

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. 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.

EnlargeAnatomy of the pharynx; drawing shows the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx. Also shown are the nasal cavity, oral cavity, hyoid bone, larynx, esophagus, and trachea.
Anatomy of the pharynx (throat). The pharynx is a hollow tube that starts behind the nose, goes down the neck, and ends at the top of the trachea and esophagus. The three parts of the pharynx are the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.

The oropharynx includes the following:

EnlargeParts of the oropharynx; drawing shows the soft palate, side and back wall of the throat, tonsil, and the back third of the tongue.
Parts of the oropharynx. The oropharynx includes the soft palate, side and back wall of the throat, tonsils, and the back third of the tongue.

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, pharynx, larynx (voice box), trachea, or esophagus at the same time.

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

See the following PDQ summaries for more information about other types of head and neck cancers:

Smoking or being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) 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:

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 white patch on the tongue or lining of the mouth that does not go away.
  • Coughing up blood.

Sometimes oropharyngeal cancer does not cause early signs or symptoms.

Tests that examine the mouth and throat are used to help diagnose and stage oropharyngeal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam and health 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 under the tongue and 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.
  • Neurological exam: A series of questions and tests to check the brain, spinal cord, and nerve function. The exam checks a person’s mental status, coordination, and ability to walk normally, and how well the muscles, senses, and reflexes work. This may also be called a neuro exam or a neurologic exam.
  • 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, such as the head, neck, chest, and lymph nodes, 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.
      EnlargeComputed tomography (CT) scan of the head and neck; drawing shows a patient lying on a table that slides through the CT scanner, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the head and neck.
      Computed tomography (CT) scan of the head and neck. The patient lies on a table that slides through the CT scanner, which takes x-ray pictures of the inside of the head and neck.
    • 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.
      EnlargePET (positron emission tomography) scan; drawing shows patient lying on table that slides through the PET machine.
      PET (positron emission tomography) scan. The patient lies on a table that slides through the PET machine. The head rest and white strap help the patient lie still. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into the patient's vein, and a scanner makes a picture of where the glucose is being used in the body. Cancer cells show up brighter in the picture because they 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, larynx, 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 a laryngoscope to check for abnormal areas. A laryngoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing the inside of the throat and voice box. It may also have a tool to remove tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer.

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

    • HPV test (human papillomavirus test): A laboratory test used to check the sample of tissue for certain types of HPV infection, such as HPV type 16. This test is done because oropharyngeal cancer can be caused by HPV infection. This is important because HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer has a better prognosis and is treated differently than HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancer.

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

The prognosis depends on the following:

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

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 PDQ summary Cigarette Smoking: Health Risks and How to Quit for more information.

Stages of Oropharyngeal Cancer

Key Points

  • After oropharyngeal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the oropharynx or to other parts of the body.
  • There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.
  • Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.
  • The following stages are used for HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer:
    • Stage I
    • Stage II
    • Stage III
    • Stage IV
  • The following stages are used for HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancer:
    • Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)
    • Stage I
    • Stage II
    • Stage III
    • Stage IV

After oropharyngeal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the oropharynx or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the oropharynx or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage in order to plan treatment. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose oropharyngeal cancer are often used to stage the disease.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

Cancer can spread through tissue, the lymph system, and the blood:

  • Tissue. The cancer spreads from where it began by growing into nearby areas.
  • Lymph system. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the lymph system. The cancer travels through the lymph vessels to other parts of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer spreads from where it began by getting into the blood. The cancer travels through the blood vessels to other parts of the body.

Cancer may spread from where it began to other parts of the body.

When cancer spreads to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. Cancer cells break away from where they began (the primary tumor) and travel through the lymph system or blood.

  • Lymph system. The cancer gets into the lymph system, travels through the lymph vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.
  • Blood. The cancer gets into the blood, travels through the blood vessels, and forms a tumor (metastatic tumor) in another part of the body.

The metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if oropharyngeal cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are actually oropharyngeal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic oropharyngeal cancer, not lung cancer.

Many cancer deaths are caused when cancer moves from the original tumor and spreads to other tissues and organs. This is called metastatic cancer. This animation shows how cancer cells travel from the place in the body where they first formed to other parts of the body.

The following stages are used for HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer:

Stage I

In stage I, one of the following is true:

  • one or more lymph nodes with cancer that is HPV p16-positive are found but the place where the cancer began is not known. The lymph nodes with cancer are 6 centimeters or smaller, on one side of the neck; or
  • cancer is found in the oropharynx (throat) and the tumor is 4 centimeters or smaller. Cancer may have spread to one or more lymph nodes that are 6 centimeters or smaller, on the same side of the neck as the primary tumor.
EnlargeDrawing shows different sizes of a tumor in centimeters (cm) compared to the size of a pea (1 cm), a peanut (2 cm), a grape (3 cm), a walnut (4 cm), a lime (5 cm), an egg (6 cm), a peach (7 cm), and a grapefruit (10 cm). Also shown is a 10-cm ruler and a 4-inch ruler.
Tumor sizes are often measured in centimeters (cm) or inches. Common food items that can be used to show tumor size in cm include: a pea (1 cm), a peanut (2 cm), a grape (3 cm), a walnut (4 cm), a lime (5 cm or 2 inches), an egg (6 cm), a peach (7 cm), and a grapefruit (10 cm or 4 inches).

Stage II

In stage II, one of the following is true:

  • one or more lymph nodes with cancer that is HPV p16-positive are found but the place where the cancer began is not known. The lymph nodes with cancer are 6 centimeters or smaller, on one or both sides of the neck; or
  • the tumor is 4 centimeters or smaller. Cancer has spread to lymph nodes that are 6 centimeters or smaller, on the opposite side of the neck as the primary tumor or on both sides of the neck; or
  • the tumor is larger than 4 centimeters or cancer has spread to the top of the epiglottis (the flap that covers the trachea during swallowing). Cancer may have spread to one or more lymph nodes that are 6 centimeters or smaller, anywhere in the neck.

Stage III

In stage III, one of the following is true:

  • cancer has spread to the larynx (voice box), front part of the roof of the mouth, lower jaw, muscles that move the tongue, or to other parts of the head or neck. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes in the neck; or
  • the tumor is any size and cancer may have spread to the larynx, front part of the roof of the mouth, lower jaw, muscles that move the tongue, or to other parts of the head or neck. Cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes that are larger than 6 centimeters, anywhere in the neck.

Stage IV

In stage IV, cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lung or bone.

The following stages are used for HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancer:

Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the oropharynx (throat). These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I

In stage I, cancer has formed. The tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller.

EnlargeDrawing shows different sizes of a tumor in centimeters (cm) compared to the size of a pea (1 cm), a peanut (2 cm), a grape (3 cm), a walnut (4 cm), a lime (5 cm), an egg (6 cm), a peach (7 cm), and a grapefruit (10 cm). Also shown is a 10-cm ruler and a 4-inch ruler.
Tumor sizes are often measured in centimeters (cm) or inches. Common food items that can be used to show tumor size in cm include: a pea (1 cm), a peanut (2 cm), a grape (3 cm), a walnut (4 cm), a lime (5 cm or 2 inches), an egg (6 cm), a peach (7 cm), and a grapefruit (10 cm or 4 inches).

Stage II

In stage II, the tumor is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters.

Stage III

In stage III, the cancer:

  • is either larger than 4 centimeters or has spread to the top of the epiglottis (the flap that covers the trachea during swallowing); or
  • is any size. Cancer has spread to one lymph node that is 3 centimeters or smaller, on the same side of the neck as the primary tumor.

Stage IV

Stage IV is divided into stages IVA, IVB, and IVC.

  • In stage IVA, cancer:
    • has spread to the larynx (voice box), front part of the roof of the mouth, lower jaw, or muscles that move the tongue. Cancer may have spread to one lymph node that is 3 centimeters or smaller, on the same side of the neck as the primary tumor; or
    • is any size and may have spread to the top of the epiglottis, larynx, front part of the roof of the mouth, lower jaw, or muscles that move the tongue. Cancer has spread to one of the following:
      • one lymph node that is larger than 3 centimeters but not larger than 6 centimeters, on the same side of the neck as the primary tumor; or
      • more than one lymph node that is 6 centimeters or smaller, anywhere in the neck.
  • In stage IVB, cancer:
    • has spread to the muscle that moves the lower jaw, the bone attached to the muscle that moves the lower jaw, the base of the skull, or to the area behind the nose or around the carotid artery. Cancer may have spread to lymph nodes in the neck; or
    • may be any size and may have spread to other parts of the head or neck. Cancer has spread to a lymph node that is larger than 6 centimeters or has spread through the outside covering of a lymph node into nearby connective tissue.
  • In stage IVC, cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lung, liver, or bone.

Treatment Option Overview

Key Points

  • There are different types of treatment for patients with oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Patients with oropharyngeal cancer should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors with expertise in treating head and neck cancer.
  • Four types of standard treatment are used:
    • Surgery
    • Radiation therapy
    • Chemotherapy
    • Targeted therapy
  • New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.
    • Immunotherapy
  • Treatment for oropharyngeal cancer may cause side effects.
  • Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
  • Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.
  • Follow-up tests may be needed.

There are different types of treatment for patients with oropharyngeal cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with oropharyngeal cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Patients with oropharyngeal cancer should have their treatment planned by a team of doctors with expertise in treating head and neck cancer.

The patient's treatment will be overseen by a medical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer. Because the oropharynx helps in breathing, eating, and talking, patients may need special help adjusting to the side effects of the cancer and its treatment. The medical oncologist may refer the patient to other health professionals with special training in the treatment of patients with head and neck cancer. These may include the following specialists:

Four types of standard treatment are used:

Surgery

Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment of all stages of oropharyngeal cancer. A surgeon may remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around the cancer. After the surgeon removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

New types of surgery, including transoral robotic surgery, are being studied for the treatment of oropharyngeal cancer. Transoral robotic surgery may be used to remove cancer from hard-to-reach areas of the mouth and throat. Cameras attached to a robot give a 3-dimensional (3D) image that a surgeon can see. Using a computer, the surgeon guides very small tools at the ends of the robot arms to remove the cancer. This procedure may also be done using an endoscope.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the area of the body with cancer.

EnlargeExternal-beam radiation therapy of the head and neck; drawing shows a patient lying on a table under a machine that is used to aim high-energy radiation at the cancer. An inset shows a mesh mask that helps keep the patient's head and neck from moving during treatment. The mask has pieces of white tape with small ink marks on it. The ink marks are used to line up the radiation machine in the same position before each treatment.
External-beam radiation therapy of the head and neck. A machine is used to aim high-energy radiation at the cancer. The machine can rotate around the patient, delivering radiation from many different angles to provide highly conformal treatment. A mesh mask helps keep the patient’s head and neck from moving during treatment. Small ink marks are put on the mask. The ink marks are used to line up the radiation machine in the same position before each treatment.

Certain ways of giving radiation therapy can help keep radiation from damaging nearby healthy tissue. These types of radiation therapy include the following:

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT): IMRT is a type of 3-dimensional (3-D) radiation therapy that uses a computer to make pictures of the size and shape of the tumor. Thin beams of radiation of different intensities (strengths) are aimed at the tumor from many angles.
  • Stereotactic body radiation therapy: Stereotactic body radiation therapy is a type of external radiation therapy. Special equipment is used to place the patient in the same position for each radiation treatment. Once a day for several days, a radiation machine aims a larger than usual dose of radiation directly at the tumor. By having the patient in the same position for each treatment, there is less damage to nearby healthy tissue. This procedure is also called stereotactic external-beam radiation therapy and stereotaxic radiation therapy.

In advanced oropharyngeal cancer, dividing the daily dose of radiation into smaller-dose treatments improves the way the tumor responds to treatment. This is called hyperfractionated radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy may work better in patients who have stopped smoking before beginning treatment.

If the thyroid or pituitary gland are part of the radiation treatment area, the patient has an increased risk of hypothyroidism (too little thyroid hormone). A blood test to check the thyroid hormone level in the body should be done before and after treatment.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy).

See Drugs Approved for Head and Neck Cancer for more information. (Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.)

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to attack specific cancer cells. Targeted therapies usually cause less harm to normal cells than chemotherapy or radiation therapy do. Monoclonal antibodies are a type of targeted therapy being used in the treatment of oropharyngeal cancer.

Monoclonal antibody therapy is a cancer treatment that uses antibodies made in the laboratory from a single type of immune system cell. These antibodies can identify substances on cancer cells or normal substances in the blood or tissues that may help cancer cells grow. The antibodies attach to the substances and kill the cancer cells, block their growth, or keep them from spreading. Monoclonal antibodies are given by infusion. They may be used alone or to carry drugs, toxins, or radioactive material directly to cancer cells.

Cetuximab is a type of monoclonal antibody that works by binding to a protein on the surface of the cancer cells and stops the cells from growing and dividing. It is used in the treatment of recurrent and metastatic oropharyngeal cancer.

See Drugs Approved for Head and Neck Cancer for more information. (Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.)

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI website.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the patient’s immune system to fight cancer. Substances made by the body or made in a laboratory are used to boost, direct, or restore the body’s natural defenses against cancer.

PD-1 inhibitors are a type of immunotherapy called immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy. PD-1 is a protein on the surface of T cells that helps keep the body’s immune responses in check. When PD-1 attaches to another protein called PDL-1 on a cancer cell, it stops the T cell from killing the cancer cell. PD-1 inhibitors attach to PDL-1 and allow the T cells to kill cancer cells.

Pembrolizumab and nivolumab are types of PD-1 inhibitors being studied in the treatment of oropharnygeal cancer.

EnlargeImmune checkpoint inhibitor; the panel on the left shows the binding of proteins PD-L1 (on the tumor cell) to PD-1 (on the T cell), which keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body. Also shown are a tumor cell antigen and T cell receptor. The panel on the right shows immune checkpoint inhibitors (anti-PD-L1 and anti-PD-1) blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1, which allows the T cells to kill tumor cells.
Immune checkpoint inhibitor. Checkpoint proteins, such as PD-L1 on tumor cells and PD-1 on T cells, help keep immune responses in check. The binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 keeps T cells from killing tumor cells in the body (left panel). Blocking the binding of PD-L1 to PD-1 with an immune checkpoint inhibitor (anti-PD-L1 or anti-PD-1) allows the T cells to kill tumor cells (right panel).
Immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. This animation explains one type of immunotherapy that uses immune checkpoint inhibitors to treat cancer.

Treatment for oropharyngeal cancer may cause side effects.

For information about side effects caused by treatment for cancer, see our Side Effects page.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. Information about clinical trials supported by NCI can be found on NCI’s clinical trials search webpage. Clinical trials supported by other organizations can be found on the ClinicalTrials.gov website.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Following treatment, it is important to have careful head and neck exams to look for signs that the cancer has come back. Check-ups will be done every 6 to 12 weeks in the first year, every 3 months in the second year, every 3 to 4 months in the third year, and every 6 months thereafter.

Treatment Options by Stage

For information about the treatments listed below, see the Treatment Option Overview section.

Stage I and Stage II Oropharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of newly diagnosed stage I and stage II oropharyngeal cancer may include the following:

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

Stage III and Stage IV Oropharyngeal Cancer

Treatment of newly diagnosed stage III oropharyngeal cancer and stage IV oropharyngeal cancer may include the following:

  • For patients with locally advanced cancer, surgery followed by radiation therapy. Chemotherapy also may be given at the same time as radiation therapy.
  • Radiation therapy alone for patients who cannot have chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy given at the same time as radiation therapy.
  • Chemotherapy followed by radiation therapy given at the same time as more chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy followed by surgery or radiation therapy.
  • A clinical trial of targeted therapy (nivolumab) with chemotherapy given at the same time as radiation therapy in patients with advanced HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer.
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy.
  • A clinical trial of transoral surgery followed by standard- or low-dose radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy in patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer.

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

Metastatic and Recurrent Oropharyngeal Cancer

Recurrent oropharyngeal cancer has come back in the oropharynx or in other parts of the body after it has been treated. Treatment of oropharyngeal cancer that has metastasized (spread to other parts of the body) or recurred in the oropharynx may include the following:

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

To Learn More About Oropharyngeal Cancer

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government’s center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the treatment of adult oropharyngeal cancer. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

Reviewers and Updates

Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Adult Treatment Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

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The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:

PDQ® Adult Treatment Editorial Board. PDQ Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult). Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/adult/oropharyngeal-treatment-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389310]

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