Cancer Institute A national cancer institute
designated cancer center

Cancer of the Oropharynx Expertise

Oropharyngeal cancer includes cancers involving:

  • Tonsils
  • Base of tongue
  • Soft palate
  • Upper part of the throat (posterior pharynx)

The incidence of cancer of the tonsil and base of tongue (that make up the bulk of oropharyngeal cancers) is increasing rapidly, with the expectation that by 2020 there will 50,000 new diagnoses annually in the United States. This rise is in those oropharynx tumors associated with certain strains of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). People with these HPV-associated oropharynx cancers do very well, better than those with oropharyngeal cancers associated with other risk factors such as tobacco use.

The treatment of HPV+ oropharyngeal cancer is rapidly evolving. Treatment can include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or some combination of these treatments, as we continue to seek to reduce the side effects of intervention without reducing the high likelihood of cure. Our multispecialty tumor board carefully evaluates the cancer as well as each patient, personalizing the approach to tailor for each patient a management strategy that both maximizes the chance of cure while minimizing morbidity of treatment. When there are equally effective treatment options, we discuss the risks and benefits of each choice with the patient to help make a decision together, including whether when eligible a patient wishes to consider participating in national studies Stanford offers to help address these choices. These studies are designed to produce the same cure rates as standard therapy, but with the least functional impact to patients’ speech and swallowing.

Transoral surgical options may also be appropriate at times, such as trans-oral robotic surgery (TORS). TORS is a minimally invasive technique that facilitates surgery in difficult access areas such as the very back of the tongue. When indicated, TORS may be able to accomplish the same or better resection by less invasive techniques and with less morbidity, resulting in faster recovery and better outcomes.

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