What is Oropharyngeal Cancer?

Greg Caramenico

Oropharyngeal cancer, also called throat cancer, is a common neoplasm. It commonly is composed of squamous cell carcinoma of a type similar to skin cancer. Symptoms include lumps in the neck and a sore throat that does not heal. The four stages of throat cancer measure how many cells are involved and if the disease has spread to other organs or tissues. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer and the risk that it will recur in the patient after removal.

A sore throat that does not heal is one symptom of oropharyngeal cancer.
A sore throat that does not heal is one symptom of oropharyngeal cancer.

Most oropharyngeal cancers are malignant growths in the oropharynx, usually squamous cell carcinomas of the epithelium that lines the throat. The oropharynx is the area from the back of the tongue to the middle of the throat. It includes the pharynx, the tube running from behind the nose to the trachea and a portion of the esophagus. Tobacco use increases the risk of developing cancers in the throat. Other risk factors include heavy alcohol use and infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV).

There are four general stages of oropharyngeal cancer.
There are four general stages of oropharyngeal cancer.

Symptoms typically include a lump in the neck and a persistent sore throat that causes difficulty swallowing. Pain is sometimes referred to the ear or breastbone. If the larynx becomes involved, there may be a change in the voice.

Oropharyngeal cancer may cause weight loss and general malaise. If it spreads to the lymph nodes, there may be external swelling along with other signs. After initial discovery of suspect masses during physical examination, diagnosis is certain if biopsy of the tissue lump confirms the presence of cancerous cells.

There are four general stages of oropharyngeal cancer, divided according to the disease's progression. Stage I cancers cover a small area, with no spreading outside of the throat. Stage II involves a larger part of the oropharynx but is still only local spreading. With stage III cases, there might be spreading to a local lymph node and a larger portion of the throat involved. Stage IV oropharyngeal cancer involves significant spreading to nearby areas like the larynx, jaw, or tongue, and in later phases to tissues throughout the body.

Treatment of oropharyngeal cancer usually involves surgery and radiation. The early stages may require only removal of the malignant cells and prophylactic radiation of the affected region. More advanced stage IV patients sometimes profit from chemotherapy, and may require secondary surgery and radiation to treat tissues where the cancer has spread. The prognosis varies with health and age, but is best for stage I and II cancers. Typically, the risk of recurrence increases with continued tobacco and alcohol use after treatment.

The prognosis of oropharyngeal cancer varies with a patient's age and health.
The prognosis of oropharyngeal cancer varies with a patient's age and health.

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