Types of Throat (Oropharyngeal) Cancer

Throat cancer can manifest in many different ways and require different treatment plans and care. Types of throat cancer treated by the Center for Head and Neck Cancer team include:

Throat (Oropharyngeal) Cancer Regions

Individuals are at higher risk for throat cancer if they are smokers, drink alcohol or have been exposed to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Throat cancer can form in various regions of the oropharynx, including:

Common Sites

Oropharyngeal Wall

The oropharyngeal wall refers to the side and back walls of the throat. The most common type of cancer to form in the oropharyngeal wall is squamous cell carcinoma. These types of tumors occur mostly due to a history of smoking and less often due to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Common symptoms may include a chronic sore throat, difficulty swallowing, problems opening the mouth fully, weight loss, ear pain and a lump in the throat or neck area. Treatment for cancer of the oropharyngeal wall may include TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS) and/or radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy.

Soft Palate

The soft palate, also known as the velum, is the soft tissue at the back of the throat that closes the nasal passages during swallowing. Isolated cancers of the soft palate are rare and is usually associated with a history of cigarette smoking and less commonly related to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. In early stages, the most common symptoms that develop may be an ulcer in the mouth, and as the cancer enlarges can be associated with difficulty swallowing, throat pain, a lump in the throat and problems with dentures fitting. The most common type of cancer that develops in the soft palate is squamous cell carcinoma. As with other cancers of the oropharynx treatment for soft palate cancer may include TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS) and/or radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy.

Rare Sites

Tonsils

The tonsils are lymphoid tissues that are found at the back of the throat and help fight infection. The tonsils that we all know about are the ones on the sides of the throat and can be seen when you look at your throat in the mirror and these are called palatine tonsils. There are also ones you cannot see behind the nose and at the back of the tongue.  Even individuals who have head their tonsils removed can develop tonsil cancer if any tonsil tissue that was left behind following prior surgery (tonsillectomy). Today about 90% of tonsil cancers are caused by prior human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Like those in the lingual tonsils, these cancers begin in the deep pits of the tonsil and usually spread to lymph nodes in the neck while they are still small and silent so the first symptom is actually a lump in the neck. In fact any person today, over the age of about 40,  with a lump in the neck should be considered oropharyngeal cancer until proven otherwise.  The most common symptom of tonsil cancer, one they enlarge,  is asymmetrical tonsils followed by a persistent sore throat. In later stages, individuals may have ear pain and enlarged lymph nodes. Tonsil cancer can develop as squamous cell carcinoma or other rare cancers such as lymphoma or sarcoma. Treatment for tonsil cancer may include TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS) and/or radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy.

Base of Tongue

The base of tongue refers to the back one-third of the tongue that continues down the throat. The surface of the tongue in this area is made up primarily of lymphoid tissue known as the lingual tonsil. Most of these cancers are squamous cell carcinoma and caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The cancer begins silently in the pits of the lingual tonsils where it has no or just minor symptoms. Signs and symptoms show up after it has spread to a lymph node causing a lump in the neck. As it progresses, base of tongue cancer may cause pain, difficulty swallowing, a feeling of fullness in the throat, ear pain and voice changes. The most common type of cancer that develops at the base of the tongue is squamous cell carcinoma. Treatment for base of tongue cancer may include TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS), and/or radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy.