Signs of Oropharyngeal Cancer and What To Do About It

Know the signs of oropharyngeal cancer.

What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that affects the pharynx or oropharynx. It is differentiated from oral cancer based on its location. It accounts for roughly 15,000 new cancer cases each year and has a 5 year overall survival rate of between 60% and 68%.

What causes oropharyngeal cancer?

Naturally, patients want to know exactly what causes oropharyngeal cancer and whether they are at risk of developing it. The three main risk factors for oral cancer are:

  • HPV infection (the leading risk factor)
  • Smoking
  • Heavy alcohol use

It is important to understand that smoking-related oropharyngeal cancer prevalence is decreasing, while the HPV-positive cancers are significantly increasing (especially in younger populations). This is due to the fact that fewer people are smoking, and HPV has become an exceedingly common sexually transmitted disease. In fact, about 70% of new oropharyngeal cancer diagnoses are caused by HPV. 

How treatable is oropharyngeal cancer?

There is a notable difference in the overall prognosis based on the cause of the cancer. Thankfully, HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are significantly more responsive to treatment (more on that in the next section). Furthermore, patients with HPV-positive cases also have better survival rates than HPV-negative cases.

What are some of the symptoms I should look out for?

Signs that warrant a dental evaluation to screen for oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore throat that doesn’t improve
  • Ear pain
  • A white patch on the tongue or in the mouth that appears longer than 2 weeks
  • A lump in the neck, mouth, or throat
  • A growth in the back of the mouth, around the tonsils, on the soft palate, or on the side and back walls of the throat
  • Unintentional weight loss

Treatment options for oropharyngeal cancer range from surgical removal of the tumor to chemotherapy and/or radiation. The best treatment options and a patient’s survival rate are based on the stage of the tumor and if it has spread. This is why early detection is key! 

Regular preventive visits are for more than professional cleanings.

Though you may be unaware, your hygienist and dentist screen for oral cancer at each visit, which underscores the importance of semi-annual dental hygiene visits. 

However, If you feel that you have any symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer, do not wait until your next dental appointment. Call your dentist to schedule an evaluation so that they can perform a brush biopsy or refer you to an oral surgeon if necessary.

Written by Dr. Christopher King

Dr. King has been leading King Dental since 2000. In the 20-plus years since opening King Dental, his experiences have only strengthened his excitement for his chosen career. Dentistry is Dr. King’s life’s mission.

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