Oropharyngeal cancer

You are here: 

What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer is a malignant tumour that starts in the cells of the oropharynx. Malignant means that it can spread, or metastasize, to other parts of the body.

The oropharynx is part of the pharynx, or the throat. The pharynx is part of the digestive and respiratory systems. It is divided into 3 parts. The nasopharynx is the top part of the pharynx. The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx, at the back of the mouth. The hypopharynx is the bottom part of the pharynx.

Cells in the oropharynx sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to benign conditions such as retention cysts or candidiasis (also called thrush). They can also lead to benign tumours such as papilloma or hemangioma. Benign conditions and tumours are not cancerous.

Changes to cells of the oropharynx can also cause precancerous conditions. This means that the cells are not yet cancer but there is a higher chance these abnormal changes will become cancer. The most common precancerous conditions of the oropharynx are leukoplakia and erythroplakia. In some cases, changes to cells of the oropharynx can cause cancer.

Most often, oropharyngeal cancer starts in flat, thin cells called squamous cells. These cells line the inside of the oropharynx. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma of the oropharynx.

Rare types of oropharyngeal cancer can also develop. These include minor salivary gland carcinomas and lymphomas.

Location of the Pharynx


Lusomé Founder and CEO Lara Smith Seeing my sister Erin – a young mother – struggle with the emotional blow and then the physical toll of cancer treatment made me want to do something to help women feel confident.

Read Lara's story

Making progress in the cancer fight

Icon - arrow

The 5-year cancer survival rate has increased from 25% in the 1940s to 60% today.

Learn more