Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. It starts in the oropharynx, the upper part of the throat just behind the mouth. Oropharyngeal cancers include cancer of the:

  • Soft palate (the fleshy part at the back of the roof of the mouth)
  • Side and back walls of the throat
  • Tonsils
  • Back one-third of the tongue

The different parts of the oropharynx are made up of several types of cells. Different cancers can develop from each cell type. Most oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are the thin, flat cells that line the inside of the throat and mouth. 

The tonsils and base of the tongue contain immune system (lymphoid) tissue, where cancers called lymphomas can start.

Tumors can develop in the oropharynx. Generally, there are three kinds:

  • Non-cancerous (benign) growths that do not spread to other parts of the body
  • Harmless growths that can develop into cancer
  • Cancerous tumors that can spread into other parts of the body

In the United States, almost twice as many men as women are diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer each year. The average age for diagnosis is 62, but these cancers can occur in young people, as well. People who use tobacco or are infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) have increased risk for oropharyngeal cancers.

Treatment

At Penn State Cancer Institute, we diagnose and treat all types of oropharyngeal cancers. Our multidisciplinary team is made up of surgeons, radiation and medical oncologists, and pathologists. We guide you through every step of your care.

Our surgeons may treat your oropharyngeal cancer with complex or simple surgery, as needed. Your treatment may include radiation and/or chemotherapy. 

Our surgeons take part in conferences with other cancer specialists. We discuss the specifics of your case and - putting all our skill and experience together - create a treatment plan just for you.

Our advanced surgery techniques include:

If needed, we can also improve your appearance after surgery with state-of-the-art facial reconstruction.

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Prevention and Screening

To prevent oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco products.
  • Drink less alcohol.
  • Limit the time you spend in the sun and use sunscreen.
  • Protect yourself against HPV.

Screening

While there is no standard screening test, oropharyngeal cancer may be found early during routine exams by your dentist, doctor, dental hygienist or by self-exam.

Some dentists and doctors may use special dyes and/or lights to look for tiny spots or lumps in the back of the mouth or throat. If they appear, the doctor may request a biopsy.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Symptoms

Although they may not be cancer, see a doctor or dentist if any of these conditions lasts more than two weeks:

  • A sore that does not heal 
  • Pain or numbness that doesn’t go away 
  • A white or red patch on the tongue, tonsil or mouth
  • A sore throat that doesn’t go away
  • Trouble swallowing, or trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  • Loosening of the teeth or tooth pain
  • Voice changes
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat or neck
  • Weight loss
  • Constant bad breath

Diagnosis

Your doctor will give you a physical exam and study your medical history. He or she may ask about your tobacco use and other things that indicate you are at risk. The following tests can diagnose oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Endoscopy uses a small flexible camera to examine the nose, mouth, throat and vocal cords.
  • Imaging tests may include CT scans and MRIs to see if cancer has spread to surrounding areas, and PET scans to see if it has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Biopsy uses a sample of tissue to look for cancerous cells under a microscope.

If cancer is found, the results from these diagnostic tests will tell the doctor how advanced the cancer is, so he or she can design the best treatment for you.

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