About Oropharyngeal Cancer

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Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which cancer cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx. The oropharynx includes the soft palate, side and back walls of the throat, tonsils, and back one-third of the tongue.

Signs & Symptoms

These are signs and symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer:

  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble opening the mouth fully
  • Trouble moving the tongue
  • Weight loss for no clear 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

Other health problems can also cause these signs. If you have any of these signs, see your doctor as soon as possible.

Learn more about oropharyngeal cancer from the National Cancer Institute. 

Image of the Throat

anatomical drawing of the oral cavity

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.

Specialties & Treatments

Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Head and Neck Cancers Program provides state-of-the-art care for people with these cancers. Our experts treat and diagnose all types of head and neck cancers and conditions.

These are the most common types of treatment for oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

The treatment used depends on the stage of the cancer, what the care team recommends, and what the patient wants. Learn more about oropharyngeal cancer treatment choices from the National Cancer Institute.

Find an Oropharyngeal Cancer Doctor

Causes & Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that raises your chance of getting a disease. Having a risk factor does not mean you are sure to get cancer. It means your chances are higher than the average person’s. Talk with your doctor to learn more about your cancer risk.

These are risk factors for getting oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Having the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • A personal history of other types of head and neck cancer
  • Heavy alcohol use 

Learn more about ways to prevent cancer and about cancer screenings.

Diagnosis & Stages

Diagnosis of Oropharyngeal Cancer

These tests are used to diagnose oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Physical exam and history: A health care provider looks at your body for signs of disease. Your symptoms, personal health habits, and past illnesses help guide the exam.
  • Imaging tests: A health care provider uses dyes, x-rays, magnets, radio waves, or computer technology to make detailed pictures of internal organs. The provider may inject dye or have you swallow dye to help see the images.
  • Biopsy: The health care provider removes cells or tissues with a small scope. Then a doctor looks at the cells or tissues under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Stages of Oropharyngeal Cancer

Staging is the process that shows whether cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Cancer spreads in the body in three ways: through tissue, the lymph system, or the blood.

These are the stages used for oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Stage 0 (carcinoma in situ): Abnormal cells are found in the lining of the oropharynx.
  • Stage I: Cancer has formed in the oropharynx only and is 2 centimeters or smaller.
  • Stage II: Cancer has formed in one the oropharynx only and is 2–4 centimeters.
  • Stage III: Cancer has spread to one lymph node or has spread to the epiglottis (the flap that covers the trachea during swallowing).
  • Stage IV (IVA, IVB, and IVC): Cancer has spread to other parts of the body or more lymph nodes.

When cancer spreads from where it started to another part of the body, it is called metastasis. These metastatic cancer cells are the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if oropharyngeal cancer spreads to the bone, the cancer cells in the bone are actually oropharyngeal cancer cells. The disease is metastatic oropharyngeal cancer, not bone cancer.

Learn more about stages of oropharyngeal cancer from the National Cancer Institute.