Oropharyngeal Cancer

At a Glance

  • Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer is uncommon and typically involves patients in the fifth through seventh decades of life.
  • Men are afflicted 3 to 5 times more often than women.
  • It is estimated that 36,540 men and women (25,420 men and 11,120 women) will be diagnosed with and 7,880 men and women will die of cancer of the oral cavity and pharynx in 2010.
  • Risk factors of oropharyngeal cancer include smoking and chewing tobacco, heavy alcohol use, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, drinking maté, a stimulant drink common in South America, chewing betel quid, a stimulant commonly used in parts of Asia, being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include a sore throat that does not go away, a dull pain behind the breastbone, cough, trouble swallowing, weight loss for no known reason, ear pain, a lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck, a change in voice.

 

Anatomy

The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth, and includes the back one-third of the tongue, the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, and the tonsils. The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (the tube that goes from the throat to the stomach). Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus.

Most oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Squamous cells are the thin, flat cells that line the inside of the oropharynx.

Risk Factors

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Risk factors of Oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Smoking and chewing tobacco.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables.
  • Drinking maté, a stimulant drink common in South America.
  • Chewing betel quid, a stimulant commonly used in parts of Asia.
  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).

 

Symptoms

Possible signs of oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • A sore throat that does not go away.
  • A dull pain behind the breastbone.
  • Cough.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Weight loss for no known reason.
  • Ear pain.
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck.
  • A change in voice.