What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer in which cancer cells are found within an area of your throat called your oropharynx.

More than 90% of oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which are cancers arising from the flat surface cells lining your mouth and throat.

What is the oropharynx?

Your oropharynx is the middle part of your throat (pharynx) just beyond your mouth. Your oropharynx includes the back part of your tongue (base of tongue), your tonsils, your soft palate (back part of the roof of your mouth), and the sides and walls of your throat. Your oropharynx makes saliva, keeps your mouth and throat moist and starts to help digest the food you eat.

How common is oropharynx cancer?

According to the American Cancer Society, about 53,000 people in the U.S. develop oropharyngeal cancer each year. This cancer occurs in twice the number of men than women. It occurs in equal amounts in African Americans and Caucasians.

The average age at diagnosis is 62. About 25% of oropharyngeal cancers occur in people under age 55. This cancer is rare in children.

What factors increase my risk of oropharyngeal cancer?

Factors that increase your chance of getting oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • History of smoking.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • History of head and neck cancer.
  • History of radiation therapy to the head and neck.
  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16.

What causes oropharyngeal cancer?

Cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication and buildup of abnormal cells. Abnormal cells happen because of changes to our DNA – the “building blocks” of who we are. Many different things can cause cancer. In the case of oropharyngeal cancer, use of tobacco products and alcohol have been shown to damage the cells lining your mouth and throat. The virus that cause HPV infection makes proteins that interfere with the genes that normally keep cell growth under control. Uncontrolled cell growth can lead to cancer. Currently, HPV infection is the most frequent cause of oropharyngeal cancer and is on the rise. Some cases of oropharyngeal cancer have no known cause.

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 doesn’t go away.
  • Pain or difficulty with swallowing.
  • Trouble opening up your mouth fully or moving your tongue.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Voice changes that do not go away.
  • Ear pain that doesn’t go away.
  • A lump in the back of your throat or mouth.
  • A lump in your neck.
  • Coughing up blood.
  • White patch on your tongue or lining of your mouth that doesn’t go away.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/24/2020.

References

  • National Cancer Institute. Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment. Accessed 9/21/2020.
  • American Cancer Society. Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Accessed 9/21/2020.
  • Kim ES, Gunn GB, William Jr. WN, Kies MS. Chapter 16. Head and Neck Cancer. In: Kantarjian HM, Wolff RA, Koller CA, eds. The MD Anderson Manual of Medical Oncology. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2011. Accessed 9/21/2020.

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