Youth Cancer

Oropharyngeal Cancer

The oropharynx is the part of the throat that is directly behind the mouth. Its main functions are speaking and swallowing. The most common type of oropharyngeal cancer is squamous cell carcinoma.


What causes oropharyngeal Cancer?

There are some risk factors associated with oropharyngeal cancer:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)


What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer are:

  • Painless swelling or lump in the upper neck
  • Sore throat that persists
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Changes in speech (i.e. slurring or inability to form words like before)
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Earache that persists

TIP: If you have any of these symptoms you should have them checked by your doctor - but remember, they are common to many illnesses other than oropharyngeal cancer.


How is it diagnosed?

After visiting a GP a referral will probably be made to a hospital for some tests. These may include:

  • Nasendoscope: A thin flexible tube with a light at the end is passed into a nostril to get a better view of the back of the mouth and throat. A piece of affected tissue will be removed and then examined under a microscope (biopsy).
  • Bone scan
  • MRI
  • CT scan

If the results of the test show the presence of cancer, then a referral to a doctor who specialises in its treatment will occur.


How is it treated?

A team of doctors and other staff at the hospital will plan treatment. It will depend on the size of the tumour and where it is. Treatment may be undertaken by an oncologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with chemotherapy) and a radiologist (a doctor who specialises in treating cancer with radiation).

Treatment may involve:

  • Radiotherapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery
  • Monoclonal antibodies


Surgery for oropharyngeal cancer

The aim of surgery is to remove the tumour along with a margin of clear tissue.

Oropharyngeal cancer can spread to the neck’s lymph nodes. Usually the nodes are removed (neck dissection) even without them being affected as this reduces the chance of the cancer returning.

The extent of surgery depends on the spread of the tumour.

For more information go to our surgery fact sheet.


Radiotherapy for oropharyngeal cancer

Radiotherapy may be used alone, as well as post operative treatment (adjuvant chemotherapy). It’s aims are to shrink and/or destroy small cancerous areas not be removed in surgery.

It can be administered from outside the body  (external beam radiotherapy) or by implanting radioactive material into the tumour (internal radiotherapy or brachytherapy).

For more information go to our radiotherapy fact sheet.


Chemotherapy for oropharyngeal cancer

Chemotherapy may be given at the same time as radiotherapy (chemo-radiotherapy), or after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells and stop them from spreading (adjuvant chemotherapy).

For more information go to our chemotherapy fact sheet.


Monoclonal antibodies for oropharyngeal cancer

Monoclonal antibodies are drugs that attach themselves to proteins (receptors) found in particular cancers, stopping the cancer cells from growing by locking onto these receptors. This makes the cancer cells more sensitive to the effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.