Throat Cancer (Oropharyngeal)

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Throat cancer (oropharyngeal) is the presence of cancer cells or tumor(s) in the throat. The throat is made of a number of structures, and throat cancer represents all of these cancers, including cancer of the:

  • Epiglottis: flap in the throat that blocks the airways when you swallow food or drink
  • Tonsils
  • Soft palate: rear section of the roof of the mouth
  • Pharynx: tube part of your throat

Causes of Throat Cancer (oropharyngeal)

Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these uncontrolled cells form a growth or tumor. These malignant growths can invade nearby tissues, including the lymph nodes. Cancer that has invaded the lymph nodes can then spread to other parts of the body.

It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells, but is probably a combination of genetics and environment.

Risk Factors 

Throat cancer is more common in men and in people aged 40 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of throat cancer include:

  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Family history
  • Vitamin A deficiency
  • Diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Infections caused by certain viruses such as:
    • Epstein-Barr virus
    • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Radiation exposure
  • Excess consumption of cured meats or fish
  • Marijuana use
  • Occupational exposure to certain materials such as in nickel refining
  • Woodworking
  • Working with textile fibers


Throat cancer may cause:

  • Sore throat
  • Feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
  • Voice changes or hoarseness
  • Change in voice quality
  • Pain in the head, throat or neck
  • Lump in the neck
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing blood

Diagnosing Throat Cancer

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and medical history and conduct a physical exam. The doctor may feel for any lumps in your neck. You may be referred to an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in head and neck surgery.

Your bodily fluids and tissues may be tested with:

  • Fine needle aspiration
  • Incisional biopsy

These scans can evaluate your throat and surrounding structures:

  • Laryngoscopy
  • Panendoscopy
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan
  • CT scan

The physical exam, combined with all of your test results, will help determine the type and stage of cancer you have. Staging guides your treatment plan. Like other cancers, throat cancer is staged from I-IV. Stage I is a very localized cancer, while stage IV indicates a spread to other parts of the body.


Cancer treatment varies depending on the stage and type of cancer. A combination of therapies may be more effective. For example, surgery may be used in conjunction with chemo- or radiation therapy.


Surgery removes the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue and possibly nearby lymph nodes. In very rare cases, surgery to remove large tumors of the throat may also require removal of tissue for swallowing.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation kills cancer cells and shrinks tumors. Radiation may be:

  • External radiation therapy: radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
  • Internal radiation therapy: radioactive materials placed into the throat in or near the cancer cells


This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. It may be given in many forms including pill, injection and/or via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells.


To help reduce your chance of throat cancer:

  • Don't smoke or use tobacco products. If you do smoke or use tobacco products, talk to your doctor about how to quit.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Moderate alcohol intake is a maximum of 2 drinks per day for men and a maximum of 1 drink per day for women.
  • Eat a healthful diet, one that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables. 
  • See your doctor and dentist regularly for check-ups and cancer screening.

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.