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Oropharyngeal Cancer

What is Oropharyngeal Cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer affects the back of the mouth. The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx and includes the back of the tongue (base of the tongue), tonsils, the soft palate (the roof of your mouth behind your hard palate), and part of the throat. Any cancer that occurs in one of these areas is considered an oropharyngeal cancer.

Most cancer that affects the oropharynx is "squamous cell carcinoma," meaning it occurs in the squamous cell lining of the throat.

Many people may have an associated risk factor without ever developing this type of cancer. Also, some people who get cancer do not have any known risk factors. Having a risk factor simply increases the likelihood of developing the condition. The following are known risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Smoking or using smokeless tobacco
  • HPV (human papilloma virus)
  • A weakened immune system
  • Sex — this cancer affects more men than women
  • Age — it is more common in people over 45 years of age

Oropharyngeal cancer can grow and spread. Locally, it can cause difficulty swallowing and interfere with eating. It can also spread to other parts of the body and effect other organs.

Oropharyngeal cancer symptoms can sometimes resemble those of a minor illness, like a cold or strep throat. Most people experience some of these symptoms occasionally, but they disappear after typical treatment or on their own. Any symptoms that worry you or last more than a couple of weeks should be evaluated by a doctor. Symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer may be unnoticeable but may also include any of the following:

  • Sore throat, pain, or difficulty when swallowing
  • Inability to open your mouth all the way
  • Trouble moving your tongue
  • Ear pain
  • Lumps or bumps in the back of your mouth, or that you can feel in your throat or on your neck
  • White or red patches in the back of the mouth
  • Bleeding from the back of the mouth

During your evaluation, your doctor will first ask about your medical history, including past health issues and illnesses; and whether you drink or smoke, or ever have.

The doctor will examine your head, neck, and mouth.

You may need to have other tests such as:

  • Blood tests
  • Laryngoscopy where a small scope allows the doctor to see in your throat
  • Imaging tests such as a CT scan, PET scan, MRI, or x-ray
  • Tissue Biopsy

The results of these tests will reveal whether you have oropharyngeal cancer, and if so, what stage it is.

The stage of your cancer will determine recommended treatment. Some early-stage cancers may be surgically removed, while others may need chemotherapy, radiation, or both. UPMC Hillman also has clinical trials including with immunotherapy that may an option for your diagnosis.

Chemotherapy: During chemotherapy, medications are administered orally or through an IV. Chemotherapy can make you feel sick and can sometimes affect other organs like the liver, so your team will monitor your health closely during chemotherapy to watch for side effects.

Learn more about chemotherapy.

Radiation: Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays or concentrated radioactive material to kill cancer cells. UPMC offers several types of radiation therapy, all of which have been developed to target the cancer and affect healthy tissue as little as possible. Radiation has some side effects, which may include dry mouth, skin problems, and fatigue.

Learn more about radiation therapy.

Surgery: UPMC offers innovative, cutting-edge surgical techniques to treat oropharyngeal cancer. The goal of surgical treatment is to remove as much cancer as possible while leaving healthy tissue alone. Minimally invasive surgery such as robotic surgery has several benefits, which include better surgical precision and shorter hospital stays.

Learn more about surgical options at UPMC.

UPMC has provided high-quality services to Pittsburgh, the surrounding areas, and to people around the world for more than 30 years.

Our team of experts who focus on head and neck cancer every day includes:

  • Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists
  • Surgeons
  • Medical and radiation oncologists
  • Audiologists
  • Speech pathologists

We are a trusted national and international leader in head and neck cancer care, providing proven and cutting-edge services to each person we see, and conducting research to constantly improve the care we deliver.

Contact Us

To make an appointment for head and neck cancer care at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, call 412-647-2811.