The pharynx is a hollow “tube” that starts behind the nose and ends where the esophagus begins.The oropharynx is the middle part of this structure. It is located behind the mouth and includes the back part of the tongue (tongue base), soft palate, tonsils, and side and back walls of throat.

  • Traditionally these cancers have been closely linked with tobacco and alcohol use.
  • More recently, the majority of patients are diagnosed with disease associated with a common virus known as human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV-related cancers tend to present in younger patients and have a more favorable prognosis with standard treatment. Because of their favorable prognosis, on-going efforts are aimed at deintensifying therapy with the goal of reducing treatment-related side effects.
  • Our head and neck cancer team is dedicated to achieving the best cancer outcomes while limiting side effects whenever possible.
  • We offer cutting-edge options in surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Every patient we see also has access to clinical trials aimed at improved treatment success and quality of life.

Risk Factors

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Tobacco use
  • Heavy alcohol use

Symptoms

Individuals with oropharyngeal cancer may not have any symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include:

  • Neck lump or mass
  • Sore throat
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Ear pain (often limited to one side)
  • Sensation that something is “stuck” in your throat (also known as “globus sensation”)
  • Trouble opening your mouth or moving your tongue
  • Blood in saliva
  • Muffled voice

Diagnosis

As part of the initial visit, the following tests may be used to detect, diagnose and/or stage a laryngeal or hypopharygeal cancer.

  • Physical Examination
  • Endoscopy: a flexible scope placed through your nose (to avoid the gag reflex) to visualize the voice box
  • Imaging: May include ultrasound, CT scan, MRI and/or a PET scan
  • Biopsy
    • Fine needle aspiration (FNA) of neck mass — often done in the clinic
    • Sampling of primary tumor site — can be done in the clinic or may require an exam under anesthesia in the operating room
  • Sampling of the suspicious lesion/mass to definitively diagnose the type of tumor, often required to be done in the operating room with an outpatient procedure.

Treatment

Treatment paradigms for oropharynx cancer are rapidly evolving. therefore, management is individualized to each patient based on preference and disease presentation.

Treatment options may involve surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of these. Significant advances in surgical techniques and tools allow surgeons to remove tumors in difficult locations in a minimally invasive fashion.

Similar technological improvements in radiation therapy allow better targeting of tumors while reducing negative impact to surrounding normal tissues.

In addition to traditional chemotherapy, there is an increasing role for the use of many newer targeted agents.

Patients treated at the Froedtert & MCW Clinical Cancer Center at Froedtert Hospital have access to these advanced treatments and techniques offered by specialists who are highly trained in treating head and neck cancers. This allows patients to achieve excellent oncologic outcomes while preserving as much quality of life as possible.

Our patients have access to all of the latest technology in treatment options for HPV oropharyngeal cancer. Each patient is involved in a tailor-made treatment program to fit his or her unique needs. Our multidisciplinary team approach means each patient’s care team includes all of the physician and other experts needed to chart the most successful treatment possible — to fight cancer and preserve function and speech. Treatment options often include:

To help bring patients the latest options in cancer-fighting treatments and drugs, our head and neck cancer specialists are members of several research consortiums, offering unparalleled access to clinical trials.

Virtual Visits Are Available

Safe and convenient virtual visits by video let you get the care you need via a mobile device, tablet or computer wherever you are. We’ll gather your medical records for you and get our experts’ input so we can offer treatment options without an in-person visit. To schedule a virtual visit, call 1-866-680-0505.

Cancer and the COVID-19 Vaccine

There is currently no data that suggests current or former cancer patients should avoid getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Cancer can weaken your immune system, so we recommend that most patients get the vaccine as soon as possible. 

Nationally Ranked by U.S. News & World Report

Froedtert Hospital is nationally ranked in three adult specialties by U.S. News & World Report, including ear, nose and throat. Froedtert Hospital is also recognized as high performing in four adult specialties and 15 procedures and conditions.