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Oropharyngeal cancer (or oropharyngeal carcinoma) is a type of head and neck cancer that develops in the oropharynx. The oropharynx is the part of the throat directly behind the mouth. This area helps you speak and swallow. 'Oro' means mouth and the 'pharynx' is the throat.
The most common type of oropharyngeal cancer is squamous cell cancer. Squamous cell cancer of the oropharynx is one of the most common types of head and neck cancer.
Doctors do not know the exact causes of oropharyngeal cancer. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.
Your risk of oropharyngeal cancer is increased if you:
- smoke or chew tobacco, for example, betel nut
- drink large amounts of alcohol.
Your risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer is higher if you do both. Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get oropharyngeal cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop oropharyngeal cancer.
Many cases of oropharyngeal cancer are linked to an infection called human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a common virus that spreads through skin contact, often during sex. Most people who are sexually active have HPV at some time during their life.
Most people with HPV in the mouth do not develop oropharyngeal cancer.
We have more information about the causes and risk factors of head and neck cancer.
If you have symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your GP or dentist. They will examine your mouth closely.
They will refer you to a specialist doctor if:
- they think that your symptoms could be caused by cancer
- they are not sure what the problem is.
The specialist doctor will ask about your symptoms and general health. They will examine your mouth and throat using a bright light.
If your only symptom is a lump in your neck, you may be referred to a hospital that has a neck lump clinic.
You may have some of the following tests:
The doctor collects samples (biopsies) of cells or tissue from the area that looks abnormal. A doctor who specialises in analysing cells (called a pathologist) looks at the sample under a microscope for cancer cells. Your doctor may take a biopsy while they are examining you with the nasendoscope. Or they might arrange for you to have a general anaesthetic to take the biopsy.
Ultrasound scan of the neck
Fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the lymph nodes
You may have a fine needle aspiration (FNA) of the lymph nodes if the lymph nodes in your neck do not feel or look normal on a scan. It is done to see whether there are any cancer cells in the lymph nodes.
Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.
Further tests for oropharyngeal cancer
Your specialist may arrange further tests. These may help diagnose oropharyngeal cancer or be used to check whether it has spread:
Testing for viruses
The results of your tests help your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.
A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.
Knowing the stage and grade helps your doctors plan the best treatment for you.
A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).
Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about things to consider when making treatment decisions.
Treatment for oropharyngeal cancer may include:
Chemotherapy uses anti-cancer (cytotoxic) drugs to destroy cancer cells. For oropharyngeal cancer, it is usually given in combination with radiotherapy. Chemotherapy may also be given if cancer has come back or spread to other parts of the body.
Targeted therapy drugs work by targeting something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive. Cetuximab is the most commonly used targeted therapy to treat oropharyngeal cancer.
We have more information about:
- how different treatments are used to treat oropharyngeal cancer
- what will happen before your treatment and how to prepare.
You may have some treatments as part of a clinical trial.
You will have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. These may continue for several years. You may also have regular follow-up appointments with a speech and language therapist (SLT), dietitian, restorative dentist and dental hygienist.
If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.
Sex life and fertility
Well-being and recovery
Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.
Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.
It can be difficult to eat well after treatment for head and neck cancer, but your dietitian can help you.
Your feelings after oropharyngeal cancer treatment
For some people, it takes several months to recover from treatment. It can be hard to cope if treatment has changed your appearance, voice or how you eat and drink. It is common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings.
There are national support groups that you may find helpful:
You may also want to talk to our cancer support specialists. Call the Macmillan Support Line free on 0808 808 00 00. If you are finding it difficult to talk, our Online Community is also a good place to meet people who may be in a similar situation.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our oropharyngeal cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
Mehanna H, Evans M, Beasley M et al. Oropharyngeal cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. The Journal of Laryngology and Otology, 2016: 130 (Suppl 2): S90-S96, Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4873902/ (accessed September 2018)
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
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