oropharyngeal Cancer


What do we mean by 'Oropharyngeal Cancer'? It is a type of Throat Cancer that your doctor might call by the part it has grown in, like tonsil or tongue base cancer. If it's not the cancer type you're looking for, please explore the information about other types of Throat Cancers or other types of Head and Neck Cancers.

All the information in this section is available in a PDF.
Download it here.

1. What is Oropharyngeal Cancer?

Cancer that starts anywhere in the oropharynx is called Oropharyngeal Cancer. Your doctor may also call it by the part it has grown in, like tonsil or tongue base cancer. Most Oropharyngeal Cancers start in the cells that line the surface of the throat (called squamous cell carcinomas). 

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). 

Watch a 3D video explainer about Oropharyngeal Cancer:

2. What is the oropharynx?

The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat, that is directly behind the mouth.

The oropharynx is made up of four parts (see diagram below):

  • sides of the throat, including the tonsils

  • base of the tongue (back third of the tongue), sitting above the voice box

  • soft roof of the mouth (or the soft palate) and the fleshy part of skin hanging from the roof (or the uvula)

  • back wall of the throat (or the posterior pharyngeal wall)

3. What does the oropharynx do?

The oropharynx has two main jobs: 

  • it allows air to pass from the nose and mouth, through the voice box and windpipe, into the lungs

  • it pushes food and drinks from the mouth, down the food passage to the stomach. The base of the tongue base helps stop food and drinks from entering the voicebox and the lungs.

​Diagram of the oropharynx and the surrounding areas:

4. What causes Oropharyngeal Cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. But we do know what makes some cancers more likely.

The main causes of Oropharyngeal Cancer are:

  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) infection (especially HPV types 16 and 18) — We now know HPV causes many oropharyngeal cancers.
What is the human papillomavirus?
Learn more about HPV here and download a PDF about HPV here.
  • Smoking (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) or using smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco) — If a person smokes or has smoked in the past, they have a higher risk of getting oropharyngal cancer than someone who does not smoke. Get information about quitting smoking.

  • Drinking alcohol —  If a person drinks a lot of alcohol over many years, they have a higher risk of getting oropharyngeal cancer, especially combined with smoking. Get information about reducing how much alcohol you drink

All the information in this section is available in a PDF.
Download it here.
  • What is Oropharyngeal Cancer?
  • What is the oropharynx?
  • What does the oropharynx do?
  • What causes Oropharyngeal Cancer?
  • Human Papilloma Virus
  • Signs and Symptoms of Oropharyngeal Cancer
  • Tests for Oropharyngeal Cancer
  • Treatment options for Oropharyngeal Cancer
  • Surgery 
  • Radiation Therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  1. Head and Neck Cancer Australia Resources 
  2. External Links to other Head and Neck Cancer Resources