What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the cells of the oropharynx, which is part of the throat (pharynx). A cancerous (malignant) tumour is a group of cancer cells that can grow into and destroy nearby tissue. It can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body.

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

Cells in the oropharynx sometimes change and no longer grow or behave normally. These changes may lead to non-cancerous (benign) conditions such as retention cysts. They can also lead to non-cancerous tumours such as papillomas or hemangiomas.

But in some cases, changes to oropharyngeal cells can cause oropharyngeal cancer. Most often, oropharyngeal cancer starts in the squamous cells that line the inside of the oropharynx. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the oropharynx.

Rare types of oropharyngeal cancer can also develop. These include minor salivary gland carcinoma and lymphoma.

squamous cell

A type of epithelial cell that is thin and flat and looks like a fish scale.

Squamous cells are found in the epithelium that makes up the surface of the skin. They are in the epithelium lining of organs such as the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, anus, cervix and vagina. Squamous cells also make up the lining of blood vessels and hollow areas of the body (called cavities).