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Oropharyngeal Squamous Cell Carcinoma

by Bradley A. Schiff, MD

Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma affects over 13,000 people in the US each year. Tobacco and alcohol are major risk factors, and the role of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection as a risk factor is increasing. Symptoms include sore throat and painful and/or difficult swallowing. Treatment is with radiation, chemotherapy, or both, but primary surgery has begun to be used more often. Survival rate is much higher in HPV-positive patients.

Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma refers to cancer of the tonsil, base and posterior one third of the tongue, soft palate, and posterior and lateral pharyngeal walls.

In the US in 2010, there were 13,600 cases of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma and 2,400 deaths. Although the incidence of oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma is increasing, its cure rates are also improving.

Like most head and neck cancers, oropharyngeal cancer is more common among older men with a mean age of 63. The male:female ratio is 2.7:1. However, recently, oropharyngeal cancer patients have become younger and more commonly female as HPV infection has emerged as an etiology. The risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer is 16 times higher in HPV-positive patients. Between 1970 and 2002, the incidence of HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer increased 3-fold. Nonetheless, tobacco and alcohol remain the main risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer. Patients who smoke more than 1.5 packs/day have about a 3-fold increased risk of cancer, and patients who drink 4 or more drinks/day have about a 7-fold increased risk. People who both drink and smoke heavily have 21 times the risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer.

Symptoms and Signs

Oropharyngeal cancer symptoms vary slightly depending on the subsite but typically patients present with sore throat, dysphagia, odynophagia, dysarthria, and otalgia. A neck mass, often cystic, is a common presenting symptom of patients with oropharyngeal cancer. Because the symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer mimic those of common URIs, it often takes many months before patients are referred to a specialist.


  • Laryngoscopy

  • Operative endoscopy and biopsy

  • Imaging tests for staging

All patients should undergo a direct laryngoscopy and biopsy before starting treatment to evaluate the primary lesion and to look for second primary lesions. Patients with confirmed carcinoma typically have neck CT with contrast, and most clinicians also do PET of the neck and chest.


The overall 5-yr survival rate is about 60%. However, prognosis varies with the cause. Patients who are HPV-positive have a 5-yr survival of > 75% (and a 3-yr survival of almost 90%), whereas HPV-negative patients have a 5-yr survival of < 50%.


  • Typically, radiation therapy, with or without chemotherapy

  • Sometimes, transoral laser microsurgery

Radiation therapy, sometimes combined with chemotherapy (chemoradiation), has been the mainstay of treatment in the US. Traditionally, radiation has been used for early-stage cancers and chemoradiation has been used for advanced cancers. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) has increasingly been used as a way to spare surrounding tissue and decrease long-term adverse effects. Because the oropharynx is rich in lymphatics, cervical lymph node metastasis is common and must be considered in all patients with oropharyngeal cancer. If a cervical lymph node metastasis does not resolve after radiation or chemoradiation, post-treatment neck dissection is warranted.

Surgery is increasingly being used as primary treatment of oropharyngeal cancer. Transoral laser microsurgery (TLM) is increasingly being used to resect tumors of the tonsil and base of tongue endoscopically, avoiding the morbidity of open surgery. Transoral robotic surgery (TORS) is an increasingly popular means of treating select oropharyngeal lesions. In TORS, a surgical robot with multiple adaptable arms is controlled by a surgeon at a console. The articulating arms of the robot and an endoscopic camera are inserted through the patient's mouth (which is held open by a retractor). The robotic procedure provides better visualization of structures and causes less surgical morbidity compared to open surgery. However, the indications for using TORS are not yet well defined. When TORS is used on patients with more advanced tumors, postoperative radiation or chemoradiation is often done.

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