What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the cells of the oropharynx, which is part of the throat (pharynx). A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

The pharynx is part of the digestive and respiratory systems. It is divided into 3 parts. The nasopharynx is the top part. The oropharynx is the middle part, located at the back of the mouth. The hypopharynx is the bottom part.

Cells in the oropharynx sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous (benign) conditions such as retention cysts. They can also lead to non-cancerous tumours such as papillomas or hemangiomas.

But in some cases, changes to oropharyngeal cells can cause oropharyngeal cancer. Most often, oropharyngeal cancer starts in the squamous cells that line the inside of the oropharynx. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the oropharynx.

Rare types of oropharyngeal cancer can also develop. These include minor salivary gland carcinoma and lymphoma.

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer. 2014: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/oral-cavity-and-oropharyngeal-cancer.html.
  • Mendenhall WM, Werning JW, Pfister DG . Cancer of the head and neck. DeVita VT Jr, Lawrence TS, & Rosenberg SA. Cancer: Principles and Practice of Oncology. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2015: 38: 422-473.
  • Mourad WF, Hu KS, Choi WH, et al . Cancer of the oropharynx: General principles and management. Harrison LB, Sessions RB, Kies MS (eds.). Head and Neck Cancer: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2014: 17A: 373 - 414.
  • National Cancer Institute. Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment (PDQ®) Health Professional Version. 2017: https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/oropharyngeal-treatment-pdq#section/all.

The pharynx

The pharynx, commonly called the throat, is part of the digestive and respiratory systems. The pharynx is part of the head and neck.

Cancerous tumours of the oropharynx

Cancerous oropharyngeal tumours are growths that can spread to other parts of the body. Learn about squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), the most common type of oropharyngeal cancer.

Non-cancerous tumours and conditions of the oropharynx

They may also be called benign tumours or conditions. Learn about non-cancerous tumours of the oropharynx, such as papilloma, and non-cancerous conditions, such as retention cysts, that do not spread to other parts of the body and are not usually life-threatening.