Oropharyngeal cancer

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Treatments for oropharyngeal cancer

If you have oropharyngeal cancer, your healthcare team will create a treatment plan just for you. It will be based on your health and specific information about the cancer. When deciding which treatments to offer for oropharyngeal cancer, your healthcare team will consider:

  • the stage of the cancer
  • the size and location of the tumour in the oropharynx
  • where the cancer has spread
  • the best way to maintain swallowing, talking and breathing
  • your overall health
  • what you prefer or want

You may be offered one or more of the following treatments for oropharyngeal cancer.


Surgery may be used as the main treatment to remove the tumour and any tissues that the cancer has spread to. Depending on the location, stage and size of the tumour, you may have one of the following types of surgery.

  • Surgical resection removes the tumour along with a margin of healthy tissue around it.
  • Transoral resection removes the tumour through an endoscope
  • Tonsillectomy removes the tonsils.
  • Glossectomy removes part or all of the tongue.
  • Laryngectomy removes the larynx (voice box).
  • Mandibulectomy removes part of the lower jawbone (mandible).
  • Maxillectomy removes part of the upper jawbone (maxilla).
  • Palatal resection removes and rebuilds part of the hard palate, soft palate or both.
  • Neck dissection removes lymph nodes in the neck (cervical lymph nodes).
  • Gastrostomy places a feeding tube into the stomach to help with nutrition.
  • Tracheostomy places a tube into the trachea (windpipe) to help with breathing.
  • Reconstructive surgery repairs areas affected by cancer or its treatment and helps to maintain the look and function of the mouth and neck as much as possible.
  • Salvage surgery removes cancer that remains after chemoradiation or radiation therapy.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy may be used as the main treatment for oropharyngeal cancer. It may be given alone or with chemotherapy as part of chemoradiation. External beam radiation therapy is the type of radiation therapy used for oropharyngeal cancer. Amachine directs radiation through the skin to the tumour and some of the tissue around it. Radiation is given to the tumour and the lymph nodes in the neck.

Chemoradiation combines radiation therapy with chemotherapy. The 2 treatments are given during the same time period. The chemotherapy makes the radiation more effective.


Chemotherapy is usually given with radiation (called chemoradiation) as a main treatment for oropharyngeal cancer. Chemotherapy may be used alone before other treatments or combined with targeted therapy for cancer that has come back (recurred) or spread (metastasized) to distant sites.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy uses drugs to target specific molecules (such as proteins) on cancer cells or inside them. It is sometimes given in combination with chemotherapy drugs for cancer that has come back or spread to distant sites.


Immunotherapy helps to strengthen or restore the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. Immunotherapy may be used to treat metastatic or recurrent oropharyngeal cancer.

If you can’t have or don’t want cancer treatment

You may want to consider a type of care to make you feel better without treating the cancer itself. This may be because the cancer treatments don’t work anymore, they’re not likely to improve your condition or they may cause side effects that are hard to cope with. There may also be other reasons why you can’t have or don’t want cancer treatment.

Talk to your healthcare team. They can help you choose care and treatment for advanced cancer.

Follow-up care

Follow-up after treatment is an important part of cancer care. You will need to have regular follow-up visits, especially in the first 3 years after treatment has finished. These visits allow your healthcare team to monitor your progress and recovery from treatment.

Clinical trials

Talk to your doctor about clinical trials open to people with oropharyngeal cancer in Canada. Clinical trials look at new ways to prevent, find and treat cancer. Find out more about clinical trials.

Questions to ask about treatment

To make the decisions that are right for you, ask your healthcare team questions about treatment.


A thin, tube-like instrument with a light and lens used to examine or treat organs or structures in the body.

An endoscope can be flexible or rigid. It may have a tool to remove tissue for examination. Specialized endoscopes may have tools designed to examine or treat specific organs or structures in the body.

Specialized endoscopes are named for the organ or structure they are used to examine or treat.