What Is Oropharyngeal Cancer?

Medically Reviewed on 4/5/2022
What is oropharynx cancer
Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that can develop in any part of the oropharynx.

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. It is a malignant condition of the oropharynx, which is the middle part of the pharynx (throat), behind the mouth. The term, malignant refers to the condition of uncontrolled growth of cells that turns out to be harmful.

Oropharyngeal cancer can develop in any part of the oropharynx including:

  • Soft palate
  • Back one-third of the tongue
  • Side and back walls of the throat
  • Tonsils

Sometimes, oropharyngeal cancer can affect more than one part of the oropharynx and adjacent parts, the nose, pharynx, larynx, trachea, or esophagus.

What causes oropharyngeal cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer occurs when abnormal cellular changes (mutations) occur and cause the cells of the organ to grow uncontrollably. These cells accumulate and give rise to growths called tumors, which if malignant are called oropharyngeal cancer.

The most common factors that increase your risk of developing cancer include:

Having any one of the risk factors above does not necessarily mean you will develop oropharyngeal cancer. Additionally, not having any of the risk factors does not mean you will never develop cancer.

If you have any concerns, discuss them with your doctor, who can identify whether you are at risk, examine you, and recommend screening tests, if necessary.

10 symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer

Not all oropharyngeal cancers cause signs or symptoms. If you develop the symptoms, the most common is a lump in the neck.

Other symptoms may include:

  1. Muffled voice
  2. A sore throat that persists
  3. Difficulty or pain with swallowing
  4. Neck mass
  5. Ear pain
  6. Trouble opening the mouth fully
  7. Trouble moving the tongue
  8. Unintentional weight loss
  9. A white patch on the tongue that does not go away
  10. Coughing up blood

These signs and symptoms may be caused by oropharyngeal cancer or by less serious conditions other than cancer. Schedule an appointment with your doctor if you suffer from more than one of the above signs and symptoms.

How is oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed?

To diagnose oropharyngeal cancer, your doctor will try to rule out all other causes that commonly cause the signs and symptoms.

The doctor will also:

  • Take your medical history
  • Ask about the duration of signs and symptoms
  • Ask about your personal history, including smoking history
  • Review current and past illnesses
  • Note down the medications you have been taking

Next, your provider will check your mouth, throat, and neck for any growth. They may use a long tube (fibreoptic scope) attached with a mirror and light to further check the abnormal areas in the mouth and throat. If they find anything suspicious, they will remove a small piece of the affected area and send it to the laboratory for analysis under a microscope. This procedure is called a biopsy.

The doctor may order one or more imaging tests of the throat area to get detailed images of the organs. These tests include computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or positron emission tomography scan.


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How is oropharyngeal cancer treated?

Your doctor will decide on treatment for oropharyngeal cancer after analyzing the following factors:

  • Type of cancer
  • Size of the tumor
  • Location of the tumor
  • Lymph node involvement
  • Speech and swallow function
  • Your overall medical condition

Treatment options for oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • Surgery: Your doctor may plan surgeries, such as minimally invasive robotic surgery and neck dissection, to remove the tumor.
  • Radiation: After surgery, your pelvic area may be exposed to these high-energy X-rays that will help kill any cancer cells that still exist in the pelvic area.
  • Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is planned generally after the surgery to get rid of any remaining cancer cells or if cancer has spread to other organs.
  • Targeted therapy: Targeted therapy targets cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that help cancer grow.
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy uses antibodies or medications that use the immune system to fight cancer cells.
  • Clinical trials: You can ask your doctor if you can participate in clinical trials that test the use of new treatments for oropharyngeal cancer.

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Medically Reviewed on 4/5/2022
Image Source: iStock Images

Sim CQ. Cancers of the Oral Mucosa. Medscape. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1075729-overview