Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the oropharynx, the middle section of your throat. You may notice a chronic sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and a lump in your throat, neck, or mouth.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2023, there will be 54,540 new cases of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. Oropharyngeal cancer originates in the oropharynx, or middle section, of your throat.

You may notice symptoms such as lumps in your throat or neck, difficulty swallowing, and a chronic sore throat.

People who smoke, chew tobacco, or have human papillomavirus (HPV) are more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer. Treatment may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapy. In addition to the information below, you can also read more about cancer here.

Oropharyngeal cancer is a form of head and neck cancer that begins in the oropharynx, or middle section, of your throat. This section of the throat includes the:

  • soft palate
  • tonsils
  • back one-third of your tongue
  • side and back walls of your throat

Oropharyngeal cancer may occur in one or more of these sections at the same time. The majority of oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which means they develop in the thin, flat cells lining the oropharynx.

Symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • chronic sore throat
  • lump in your neck, throat, or mouth
  • difficulty swallowing
  • difficulty opening your mouth fully and moving your tongue
  • unexplained weight loss
  • ear pain
  • coughing up blood
  • a white patch on your tongue or sides of your mouth that doesn’t go away

While there are still unknowns about how oropharyngeal cancer develops, it’s likely that a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors causes this cancer to develop.

The chance of oropharyngeal cancer increases if you:

Oropharyngeal cancers are twice as likely to occur in males compared with females. They are also slightly more common in white individuals than Black individuals.

The average age for people to develop oropharyngeal cancer is 64 years old. However, people may develop it at any age. People younger than 55 years old make up 20% of people with an oropharyngeal cancer diagnosis.

Tumors that develop in the oropharynx may be benign or malignant. Older research from 2008 reveals that 10% of oral and oropharyngeal tumors are benign.

Treatment for oropharyngeal cancer may include:

Your doctor may recommend a combination of these treatments based on:

  • the exact type of cancer you have
  • the stage of your cancer
  • whether it has spread
  • the size and location of any tumors

Because smoking can lead to treatment complications and increase the chances of oropharyngeal cancer returning, your doctor will likely request that you quit smoking as a part of the treatment process.

The 5-year survival rates for people with cancer that develops in the oropharynx are:

  • 59% when localized
  • 62% when regionalized
  • 29% when it has metastasized to a distant part of the body

For most cancers, the 5-year survival rates are higher when the cancer is localized compared with regionalized. Why this is not the case with cancer in the oropharynx is not fully understood but may be related to the small number of cases available for study.

The overall 5-year survival rate for oropharyngeal cancer is about 60%.

People with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer have better survival rates than people with HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancer. But this is partly because HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer is more common in younger people and those with better overall health.

Between 2009 and 2020, mortality rates for oropharyngeal cancer increased by almost 2% per year.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience with cancer will be unique. Your outlook with oropharyngeal cancer can be affected by:

  • the exact type of cancer you are diagnosed with
  • the stage of cancer and whether or not it has spread to other parts of the body
  • your age and general health
  • your response to treatment

It’s important to discuss any questions you have about your prognosis with your doctor, who knows your overall health and can assess how your body is responding to treatment.

Oropharyngeal cancer develops in the oropharynx, or middle part, of the throat. People who smoke, chew tobacco, and have HPV have a higher chance of this cancer. You may have throat pain, difficulty swallowing, and lumps in the throat, neck, or mouth if you have oropharyngeal cancer.

It’s important to tell your doctor if you have risk factors or symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer. They can confirm if you have oropharyngeal cancer with imaging and a biopsy. With early diagnosis and prompt treatment, better health outcomes are possible.