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How Oropharyngeal Cancer Is Identified And Treated

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Medically Reviewed By Colgate Global Scientific Communications

Oropharyngeal cancer affects the tissues in the back of your mouth: the tonsils, soft palate, and pharynx, the part of your throat that lies behind your nose and mouth. Understanding how oropharyngeal cancer is different from other oral cancers can help you better assess your risk factors and know when to talk to your doctor.

What Are the Risk Factors of Oropharyngeal Cancer?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a significant risk factor for developing cancers in the back of the mouth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 70% of oropharynx cancers may be linked to HPV. HPV can integrate into your DNA and shut down the production of tumor-suppressor proteins. Therefore, cancerous cells can grow unchecked.

HPV isn't the only risk factor for this type of cancer. Smoking and heavy alcohol use are also significant risks for developing oropharyngeal cancer. Not eating enough fruits and vegetables may play a role as well.

What Are the Warning Signs of Oropharyngeal Cancer?

There are many ways your body can indicate the presence of oropharyngeal cancer. Some of the symptoms include:

  • A sore or lump in the back of your throat that doesn't heal and is uncomfortable
  • The sensation of something stuck in your throat
  • Chronic soreness
  • A hoarse voice or one that suddenly changes
  • Numbing feeling in the mouth or tongue
  • Pain or bleeding in the mouth
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing, or moving the jaws or tongue

If you notice any of these symptoms, see your dentist right away for further examination.

How Do You Diagnose Oropharyngeal Cancer?

First, your dentist or dental hygienist will perform an oral cancer screening to check your mouth for signs of cancer. They will look for any abnormalities or lumps that could be cancerous. If they find anything, they will do further testing.

Your oral care provider may use a procedure called an oral brush biopsy to check suspicious tissues for the presence of cancer cells. During the biopsy, your dentist collects the suspicious cells with a small brush and sends them to be analyzed in a laboratory. If the oral brush biopsy finds malignant activity, you will be referred to an oral surgeon or ear, nose, and throat doctor for further testing. This testing may include an endoscopy, where 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 a small amount of tissue is drawn from your mouth and examined under a microscope. If it confirms cancer's presence, you may need to undergo more testing to help stage cancer. This testing often includes a CT scan, MRI, or ultrasound.

How Do You Treat Oropharyngeal Cancer?

The main treatment options for early-stage oropharyngeal cancer are surgery and radiation therapy. The first step is surgery to remove both the cancer cells and the nearby lymph nodes. If necessary, radiation therapy may follow. Radiation therapy also works by targeting both the cancer cells and the nearby lymph nodes in the neck. It is also useful for people who aren't candidates for surgical treatment due to other medical problems.

Later stages of oropharyngeal cancer are treated with surgery, as well. No matter your treatment regimen, it's essential to continue your oral hygiene routine during cancer treatment – even if your mouth is sore. Continue using fluoride toothpaste and twice-daily brushing as a part of your routine during treatment, just as you do when your mouth is in good condition.

Oropharyngeal cancer is serious but more easily treated if caught early. Pay close attention to your oral health. If you notice any possible signs of oropharyngeal cancer, talk to your oral care provider. They will set you up for an oral cancer screening and get you started on the road to recovery.


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This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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