Soft Palate Cancer

Soft palate cancer is one of several kinds of oropharyngeal cancer. It happens when squamous cell carcinoma cells multiply and create cancerous tumors. Soft palate cancer is often found before it can spread, making it easier to treat with surgery to remove the tumor.


What is soft palate cancer?

Your soft palate is the back part of the roof of your mouth. Soft palate cancer is one of several kinds of oropharyngeal cancer. It happens when squamous cell carcinoma cells multiply and create cancerous tumors. Soft palate cancer is often found before it can spread, making it easier to treat with surgery to remove tumors.

Is soft palate cancer common?

No, it’s not. Soft palate cancer is a type of oropharyngeal cancer. About 53,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer each year. Soft palate cancer accounts for about 5% to 12% of all oropharyngeal cancer. Given that data, soft palate cancer affects 2,000 to 6,000 people. For comparison, lung cancer affects more than 236,000 people annually.


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Symptoms and Causes

What are soft palate cancer symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • A sore on your soft palate. The sore may hurt or bleed.
  • A white patch that doesn’t go away.
  • Bad breath (halitosis).
  • Trouble swallowing (dysphagia).
  • A lump in your neck.
  • Trouble opening your mouth (trismus).
  • A sore throat (pharyngitis) that doesn’t go away.

What does soft palate cancer look like?

It may look like a white patch or bump on your soft palate. Your soft palate is the squishy section between your hard palate (the bony section on the roof of your mouth) and your uvula (a tiny bit of tissue that hangs down at the back of your throat.)

What causes soft palate cancer?

Like most types of oropharyngeal cancer, the most common type of soft palate cancer is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). This cancer starts in flat cells of tissue that line the inside of your mouth and throat. In soft palate cancer, something causes your healthy squamous cells to mutate, or change, into cancerous cells that multiply and become tumors.

Medical researchers have identified some risk factors that may increase the chance you’ll develop soft palate cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Heavy tobacco use, specifically smoking.
  • Regular consumption of beverages that contain alcohol.

Does human papillomavirus (HPV) cause soft palate cancer?

It may. Medical research shows HPV infections increase the risk of developing most types of oropharyngeal cancer, including soft palate cancer.


What are the complications of soft palate cancer?

Soft palate cancer that’s not treated can spread (metastasize) to other areas of your body. Cancer that spreads is more difficult to treat.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is soft palate cancer diagnosed?

Healthcare providers will ask you about your symptoms. For example, they may ask some of the following questions:

  • When did you first notice a sore or any other change in the area?
  • Has the sore gotten bigger?
  • Does it bleed?
  • Does it hurt?
  • Do you have trouble swallowing?
  • Have you noticed any neck swelling or swollen lymph nodes?
  • Do you have ear pain? (That is a common sign of oropharyngeal cancer.)

They may ask you about personal habits, such as whether you use tobacco, including smokeless tobacco. They may also ask how often you drink beverages containing alcohol.

They’ll use a small mirror or light to examine your soft palate and check lymph nodes in your neck for signs of swelling.

What tests do healthcare providers use?

Providers use biopsies to obtain tissue samples. Medical pathologists examine tissue samples under microscopes to determine if the tissues contain cancerous cells.

Providers may also do computed tomography (CT) scans to determine tumor size and if it’s spread.

What are soft palate cancer stages?

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.

Soft palate cancer is a type of oropharyngeal cancer. The stages of oropharyngeal cancer span from Stage I (best prognosis) to Stage IV (worst prognosis). In this instance, providers use the cancer staging system developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer. This system uses specific information about the tumor’s size, whether it’s spread to nearby lymph nodes and/or to distant organs, and whether or not the cancer is associated with the HPV virus.

Cancer staging is a complicated process to complete, much less explain. It’s understandable if you feel intimidated, confused or unnerved by a process that seems to reduce your illness to a formula of letters and numbers. Your providers understand why you may feel this way. If you’re confused or concerned by what you’re hearing, ask your healthcare provider to explain how the cancer staging system works in your situation.


Management and Treatment

How do healthcare providers treat soft palate cancer?

Providers use several types of treatment depending on the cancer stage:

  • Surgery: Providers remove the tumor with surgery, including a minimally invasive surgery called transoral robotic surgery (TORS). They may also remove lymph nodes in your neck affected by the tumor. This is neck dissection.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy may be first-line or initial treatment for larger tumors that have spread into nearby tissues and/or lymph nodes.
  • Chemotherapy: Providers may use chemotherapy as an initial treatment for soft palate cancer that has spread to other areas of your body.
  • Chemoradiation: As it sounds, chemoradiation combines chemotherapy and radiation therapy. This treatment is for soft palate cancer that’s spread to your lymph nodes but not to other areas of your body.
  • Reconstructive surgery: You may need additional surgery. You may need a prosthetic device (soft palate obturator) that replaces your soft palate. A soft palate obturator is like the dental retainer you may have used if you had braces on your teeth.
  • Psychological therapy (psychotherapy): Some people have trouble adjusting to changes in their bodies after soft palate treatment. They may feel self-conscious about needing a soft palate obturator or other prosthetic devices. They may feel depressed about their situation. If that’s your situation, psychological therapy may help.

What are treatment complications?

Your soft palate helps you swallow and speak. Surgery and radiation therapy to treat soft palate cancer may affect your ability to swallow and speak as you did before treatment.


Can soft palate cancer be prevented?

You may not be able to prevent soft palate cancer. However, you may be able to reduce your risk by avoiding certain activities that increase your risk of developing the condition.

  • If you smoke cigarettes or use smokeless tobacco, try to quit. Talk to a healthcare provider about programs to help you stop using tobacco.
  • If you regularly drink beverages that contain alcohol, try to limit how much and how often you drink. If you think you may have an issue with alcohol, ask a provider for help.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes fruits and vegetables.
  • Protect yourself against HPV. An HPV infection may increase your risk. Reduce your risk of HPV infection by being vaccinated against the virus and by avoiding high-risk sexual practices such as unprotected oral sex and intercourse.

Outlook / Prognosis

Is there a cure for soft palate cancer?

That depends on your situation. Healthcare providers may be able to cure many early-stage soft palate cancers with surgery to remove tumors or radiation therapy. (Early-stage cancer refers to small tumors that haven’t spread.) Some late-stage cancers are also curable.

What is the soft palate cancer survival rate?

Survival rates are estimates based on the experiences of other people who have the same condition. Soft palate survival rates vary. Studies show that 75% to 100% of people with early-stage soft palate cancer were alive five years after diagnosis. About 33% to 47% of people with large tumors that spread were alive five years after diagnosis.

When you think about survival rates, it’s important to remember these rates reflect what happened to other people. Prognosis or expected outcome and survival rates depend on many factors. Your healthcare provider is your best resource for prognosis and survival rate information.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

People with soft palate cancer often need help managing eating and speaking after surgery. Your healthcare provider will help you manage any side effects or concerns you may have about regaining your speech or ability to eat.

Some people continue using tobacco products even after going through surgery and other soft palate cancer treatment. If that’s your situation, ask your provider for ways to stop using tobacco products.

What questions should I ask my provider?

You may want to ask your provider the following questions:

  • What stage is the cancer?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • What are treatment side effects?
  • Could the cancer come back after treatment?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Healthcare providers often find and treat soft palate cancer before cancerous tumors can grow and spread. Unfortunately, treatment may affect your ability to speak and eat, affecting your quality of life. Your provider will help you manage treatment side effects, from helping you obtain and use a prosthetic device to speech therapy or reconstructive surgery so side effects have less impact on your daily life.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 02/28/2023.

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