How Oropharyngeal Cancer Is Identified and Treated

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Oropharyngeal cancer affects the tissues in the back of your mouth: the tonsils, soft palate and pharynx. The American Cancer Society estimates about 39,500 Americans will be diagnosed with cancer of the oral cavity or oropharynx throughout 2015.

Risk Factors

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major risk factor for the development of cancers in the back of the mouth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 70 percent of oropharynx cancers may be linked to HPV. The reason for this connection is that HPV can integrate into your DNA and shut down the production of tumor-suppressor proteins. This allows cells to grow unchecked.

HPV isn't the only risk factor for this type of cancer, as smoking has been known to contribute, according to the National Cancer Institute. Similarly, heavy alcohol use is also a significant source of risk. Not eating enough fruits and vegetables may play a role as well.

Warning Signs

There are many ways your body can indicate the presence of oropharyngeal cancer, as described by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). You may notice a sore in the back of your throat that doesn't heal, or a lump that's equally uncomfortable. The sensation of something stuck in your throat, chronic soreness or even just a hoarse voice are also potential signs of this type of cancer. If you notice any of these symptoms, see your dentist right away for further examination.

Your Diagnosis

Your dentist will perform an oral cancer screening to check your mouth for signs of cancer. He or she will look for any abnormalities or lumps that could be cancerous in nature. If anything is found, further testing will be provided.

Your dentist may use a procedure called an oral brush biopsy to check suspicious tissues for the presence of cancer cells. The ASCO explains that your dentist collects these cells with a small brush so they can be analyzed in a laboratory.

If the oral brush biopsy indeed finds malignant activity, your dentist may want to confirm the results by referring you to an oral surgeon or ear, nose and throat doctor for further testing. This may include an endoscopy, wherein the specialist inserts a flexible, optical tube through your nasal cavity to get a clear view of your throat.

A specialist who finds suspicious tissue during the endoscopy may then perform a traditional biopsy, during which time a small amount of tissue is drawn from your mouth and then examined under a microscope. If it confirms the presence of cancer, you may need to undergo more testing to help stage the cancer. This testing can include a CT scan, MRI or ultrasound.

What You Can Do

The main treatment options for early stage orophyrangeal cancer are surgery and radiation therapy, according to the American Cancer Society. Surgery is performed first to remove both the cancer cells and the nearby lymph nodes, and if necessary, may be followed with radiation therapy. Radiation therapy works by targeting both the cancer cells and the nearby lymph nodes in the neck. It can also be used on its own for people who aren't candidates for surgical treatment due to other medical problems.

Later stages of orophyrangeal cancer are treated with surgery, as well. The cancer cells and nearby lymph nodes will be removed, and afterward, radiation therapy or chemotherapy can lower the risk of recurrence. No matter what your treatment regimen, it's important to continue your oral hygiene routine during cancer treatment – even if your mouth is sore – which is why using a gentle toothbrush such as Colgate® 360°® Enamel Health Sensitive should continue as a part of routine as it is when your mouth is in good condition.

If you notice any possible signs of orophyrangeal cancer, be sure to see your dentist right away for an oral cancer screening.