Throat (Oropharyngeal) Cancer Treatment

Patient and wife smiling at physician

The physicians at Penn Head and Neck Cancer are highly experienced in the treatment of oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers that affect areas of the throat including the tonsils, base of tongue, soft palate and oropharyngeal wall. Our specialists at the Abramson Cancer Center and Penn Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) collaborate to provide individualized treatment plans that combine leading edge technology and compassionate care.

Established in 1991, the Penn Center for Head and Neck Cancer is one of the largest programs of its kind in the region, and has pioneered the latest advancements to treat throat cancer including TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS).

Treating Throat Cancer With TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS)

TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS) is the world's first minimally invasive robotic surgery technique that enables surgeons to remove benign and malignant tumors of the mouth and throat. TORS was invented and developed at Penn Medicine by the pioneering team of Gregory S. Weinstein, MD and Bert W. O'Malley, Jr., MD.  There are many benefits of TORS for patients such as the avoidance of traditional radical open surgery and the reducing the toxic side effects of high dose radiation and chemotherapy. 

Established in 1991, the Penn Center for Head and Neck Cancer is one of the largest programs of its kind in the United States and has pioneered the latest advancements to treat throat cancer including TORS. 

TORS was invented by the surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania in 2005. Our team was instrumental in achieving FDA clearance for these procedures in 2009. We have the largest experience in the world, having reported over 1800 cases of TORS. In addition, the University of Pennsylvania has the only training robotics lab exclusively for training post-graduate surgeons in TORS.  To date, Drs. Gregory S. Weinstein and Bert W. O’Malley, Jr have trained over 400 surgeons from around the nation and worldwide, including a number of surgeons from Pennsylvania and the surrounding states. In that regard, our team is known as the “teachers that teach the teachers.” The long-term cure rate for patients with oropharyngeal cancer whose initial treatment with TORS has been reported in the medical literature by our team is over 90 percent. 

Other treatments for oropharyngeal cancer may include a combination of TORS and radiation with or without chemotherapy.

Treating Oropharyngeal Cancer with Radiation Therapy and Chemotherapy 

For those who are not candidates for TORS the mainstay of treatment for most oropharyngeal cancers includes radiation therapy and chemotherapy.  The medical literature shows that the more experience a team has in treating patients with oropharyngeal cancer, the more likely there will be excellent outcomes in terms of cancer control, speech and swallowing outcomes. The head and neck cancer specialists at Penn Medicine are among the most experienced physicians worldwide when it comes to managing these types of cancers.  Our primary goal of treatment is to maximize cancer outcomes as well as preserve function of speech and swallowing for our patients. We do this by helping patients choose the best treatment for their cancer which at times may be non-surgical treatment using radiation therapy and chemotherapy.  

For patients who require radiation therapy, Penn Medicine’s Roberts Proton Therapy Center, the largest and most advanced facility in the world, offers pencil beam proton therapy. Pencil beam more precisely targets tumors near critical organs, allowing a higher dose of treatment directly to the cancer while sparing healthy tissue, which can lead to benefits such as:

  • Improved outcomes, and potentially fewer side effects
  • A greater quality of life during treatment
  • Ability to offer new treatment options for patients whose cancer has recurred

Difference in Treatment Based on Type of Throat Cancer

Your treatment will be different depending on the type of throat cancer you have. Throat cancer can be squamous cell carcinoma, lymphoma or minor salivary gland cancers.