How is oropharyngeal cancer diagnosed?

First, your healthcare provider will take your medical history, ask about your smoking history (if you use tobacco products), review current and past illnesses and medications and ask about your symptoms. Next, your provider will examine your mouth, throat and neck, using a mirror and lights and/or a fiberoptic scope to look for abnormal areas in your mouth and throat and will feel your neck for masses. If any abnormal tissue is found, a biopsy will be taken to check for cancer cells and the presence of HPV infection. Imaging tests of your throat area, such as a PET, CT scan or MRI, may be ordered. These tests provide greater detail of your throat and any masses found.

What are the stages of oropharyngeal cancer?

Staging is the process of determining if cancer is present and, if so, how far it has spread. It helps your healthcare team develop your treatment plan. The stages of oropharyngeal cancer span from Stage I (best prognosis) to Stage IV (worst prognosis). The system developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer for staging cancer is complex and contains specific information based on the extent of the tumor, its spread to nearby lymph nodes and spread to distant organs, and whether or not the cancer is associated with the HPV virus. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider to explain your stage in a way you understand.

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


  • 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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