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Diseases & Conditions

Oropharyngeal Cancer

What is the oropharynx?

The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx (throat). The pharynx is a hollow tube that begins behind the nose and goes down through the neck, becoming part of the tube that extends into the stomach (esophagus). The oropharynx includes the base of the tongue, the tonsils, the soft palate (back of the mouth), and the walls of the pharynx.

What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which cancer cells are found within the anatomical borders of the oropharynx. The majority of oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which are cancers arising from the surface cells of the throat.

What are the symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer?

The following may be signs of oropharyngeal cancer or of other conditions. See a doctor if any of the following symptoms are present:

  • A sore throat that persists
  • Pain or difficulty with swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Voice changes
  • Ear pain
  • A lump in the back of the throat or mouth
  • A lump in the neck

What are the risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer?

Risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Use of alcohol
  • Use of tobacco
  • Being infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV), especially HPV-type-16/18 (HPV-16/18)

How is oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed?

A doctor can diagnose oropharyngeal cancer by examining the throat. The doctor will use a mirror and lights, and/or a fiberoptic scope, to look at the throat and will feel the neck for masses. If the doctor finds abnormal tissue, he or she will obtain a piece of tissue in a procedure called a biopsy. The tissue will be checked for cancer cells.

What are the stages of oropharyngeal cancer?

The stages of oropharyngeal cancer span from Stage 0 to Stage IV. In Stage 0, cancer is found only in the cells that line the oropharynx. Additional stages are described as follows:

Stage I

The cancer is 2 centimeters or smaller and has not spread outside the oropharynx.

Stage II

The cancer is larger than 2 centimeters, but not larger than 4 centimeters and has not spread outside the oropharynx.

Stage III

In this stage, cancer is larger than 4 centimeters and has not spread outside the oropharynx. An alternate form of this stage is that cancer is any size and has spread to only one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the cancer. The lymph node that contains cancer is 3 centimeters or smaller.

Stage IV

This stage contains the sub-stages of IVA, IVB, and IVC:

  • Stage IVA
    In Stage IVA, one of the following is the case:
    • The cancer has spread to tissues outside the oropharynx, including the voice box, roof of the mouth, jaw, muscle of the tongue, or central muscles of the jaw. The cancer may have spread to one or more nearby lymph nodes, which are still not larger than 6 centimeters.
    • The cancer is any size, is only in the oropharynx, and has spread to one lymph node that is larger than 3 centimeters but no larger than 6 centimeters, or to more than one lymph node, none larger than 6 centimeters.
  • Stage IVB
    In Stage IVB, one of the following is true:
    • The cancer appears in a lymph node that is larger than 6 centimeters and may have spread to other tissues around the oropharynx.
    • The cancer surrounds the main artery in the neck or has spread to bones in the jaw or skull, to muscle in the side of the jaw, or to the upper part of the throat behind the nose. The cancer may have spread to nearby lymph nodes.
  • Stage IVC
    In Stage IVC, the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. The tumor may be any size and may have spread to lymph nodes.

Treatment of oropharyngeal cancer by stage:

Stage I - Treatment may be radiation therapy or surgery.

Stage II - Treatment involves surgery to remove the cancer or radiation therapy.

Stage III - Treatment for this stage of oropharyngeal cancer may include surgery to remove the cancer, followed by radiation therapy.

Other treatments may include:

  • Radiation therapy alone
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy, followed by surgery or radiation therapy
  • A clinical trial of chemotherapy combined with radiation therapy
  • A clinical trial of new ways to provide radiation therapy

Stage IV - For cases in which oropharyngeal cancer can be removed by surgery, treatment may be one of the following:

  • Surgery to remove the cancer, followed by radiation therapy
  • Radiation therapy alone
  • A clinical trial combining radiation therapy and chemotherapy
  • A clinical trial of new ways to provide radiation therapy

For cases in which the cancer cannot be removed by surgery, treatment may include one of the following:

  • Radiation therapy
  • A clinical trial during which chemotherapy is followed by surgery or radiation therapy
  • A clinical trial of radiation therapy given with chemotherapy or radiosensitizers (drugs to make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy)
  • A clinical trial of new ways of giving radiation therapy
  • A clinical trial of hyperthermia therapy plus radiation therapy

What is the prognosis (chance of recovery) for people with oropharyngeal cancers?

The prognosis for people with oropharyngeal cancer depends on the health of the person, the HPV status of the tumor, and the stage of the disease. Tumors that are HPV-positive have a dramatically improved cure rate, compared to tumors that are HPV-negative. It is important for people with oral cancer or oropharyngeal cancer to have follow-up exams for the rest of their lives as cancer can occur in nearby areas. In addition, it is important to eliminate risk factors like smoking and drinking, which increase the risk for second cancers, or recurrent cancer.

References:

Dr Burkey PhotoThis article was reviewed by head and neck surgeon, Brian Burkey, MD.
Dr. Burkey is head of the section of Head and Neck Surgery and Oncology in the Head & Neck Institute of Cleveland Clinic.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 1/29/2013...#12180

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