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Diagnosis and Treatment of Cancer of the Oropharynx

The oropharynx can be generally thought of as the middle part of the throat, and includes the base of the tongue, tonsils, and soft palate. Cancer, typically squamous cell carcinoma, can arise in any of these structures.

Stanford Expertise

Like all head and neck cancers, oropharyngeal cancers are rare.  About 8,000 people each year are diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer each year in the United States. Therefore, it is important to be seen by a team of physicians who have expertise in treating the disease in the specific part of the oropharynx in which you are affected. Physicians at the Stanford Cancer Center have experience treating patients with cancer in the base of the tongue, tonsils, and soft palate.

Oropharyngeal cancer can be treated with surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy, depending on the stage and type of cancer. Early stage cancers are typically treated with surgery and/or radiation. The treatment of later stage or recurrent cancers is more likely to include chemotherapy and/or experimental treatments.

The oropharynx plays an important role in speech and swallowing, therefore Stanford Cancer Center experts in speech and swallowing therapists are integrated into therapy early on to help patients rapidly regain function and adapt to anatomical changes that may occur with treatment. Cancer Center surgeons are also experienced providing reconstructive surgery of the soft palate if necessary.

Improving Your Chances of Success

Tobacco and alcohol consumption are the primary causes of cancers of the oropharynx. Encouragingly, studies have shown that you will respond better to treatment if you can stop smoking or chewing tobacco during and after receiving therapy. The Stanford Cancer Center offers free smoking cessation services to help you meet this important goal.

It is also essential that you receive appropriate follow-up care after your initial treatment. Your Cancer Center physician check your thyroid (because treatment can sometimes disrupt thyroid function), discuss the potential role of taking medication to reduce your risk of having another cancer, and examine your pharyngeal area about once a month for the first year, and periodically thereafter, to look for new tumors.

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