Oropharyngeal Cancer – Information, Treatment & Support

What is it?

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 and 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 and 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.

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).

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

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 about surgery, go to our surgery page.

Radiotherapy for oropharyngeal cancer:

Radiotherapy may be used alone, as well as post operative treatment (adjuvant chemotherapy). Its 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 about radiotherapy, go to our radiotherapy page.

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 about chemotherapy, go to our chemotherapy page.

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.

There are some side effects of the treatments for oropharyngeal cancer which can be found in our side effects page.

Join CanTeen’s online community to chat with other young people about oropharyngeal cancer, its treatment… or anything really.