What is mouth and oropharyngeal cancer?

Mouth and oropharyngeal cancer is when abnormal cells in the mouth and oropharynx start to grow and divide in an uncontrolled way.

Mouth cancer can start in different parts of the mouth, including the lips, gums or soft sides of the mouth. Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the oropharynx. The oropharynx is the part of the throat (pharynx) just behind the mouth. It includes tonsil cancer and cancer in the back part of the tongue. 

Mouth cancer is also sometimes called oral cancer.

This section is about both mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. These cancers often start in the same type of cell. Doctors use similar tests and treatments for these cancers although there are some differences.

If your cancer started on your tongue, you might also find it useful to look at our information about tongue cancer.

You can also find out more about cancer that starts in the tonsils.

The mouth

The medical term for the mouth is the oral cavity. Mouth cancer can start anywhere in the oral cavity. This includes the:

  • lips
  • inside lining of the cheeks and lips (buccal mucosa)
  • front 2/3 of the tongue
  • gums (gingiva)
  • floor of the mouth
  • roof of the mouth (hard palate) 
  • area behind the wisdom teeth (retromolar trigone)

The mouth and oropharynx help us breathe, talk, eat, chew and swallow. 

Diagram showing the parts of the mouth above and below the tongue

The oropharynx

The medical term for the throat is the pharynx. The pharynx is divided into 3 parts.

The parts are:

  • oropharynx
  • nasopharynx
  • laryngopharynx

The oropharynx is the part of the throat just behind the mouth. Cancer starting in this area is called oropharyngeal cancer (pronounced oar-oh-fah-rin-jee-al).

The oropharynx includes the:

  • back 1/3 of the tongue 
  • soft area at the back of the roof of the mouth (soft palate)
  • tonsils and 2 ridges of tissue in front of and behind the tonsils (tonsillar pillars)
  • back wall of the throat
Diagram showing the parts of the oropharynx

Lymph nodes in your neck

Lymph nodes are small bean shaped glands that are part of the lymphatic system. 
There are major groups of lymph nodes in your neck. Cancers starting in the mouth and oropharynx can spread to these because they are close by. 

Your doctor examines your mouth and neck. You might also have tests to check for cancer in nearby lymph nodes. 

You might have an operation to remove lymph nodes from the same side of the neck as the cancer. Rarely the surgeon might remove them on both sides. These operations are called neck dissections. 

Cancer that starts in the lymph nodes is called lymphoma. This is very different to a mouth or oropharyngeal cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes. 

Diagram showing the lymph nodes in the head and neck

What is throat cancer?

The term throat cancer can be confusing because people use it to mean different types of cancer. People use the term to include the:

  • 3 parts of the pharynx (oropharynx, nasopharynx, laryngopharynx)
  • thyroid
  • voice box (larynx)
  • food pipe (oesophagus)

To avoid confusion, it is important to know the exact type of cancer you have. Cancers are treated according to where they start in the body. Ask your doctor if you do not know the name of the type of throat cancer you have. 

Who gets mouth and oropharyngeal cancer?

Oral cancer is more common in men than women. 1 in 55 men and 1 in 108 women will be diagnosed with oral cancer at some point in their life. 

Most mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in people over 60.

The Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Around 70 out of 100 oropharyngeal cancers (around 70%) are linked to the human papilloma virus (HPV). This is a common virus that causes no harm in most people. But in some people, the virus can cause changes in the throat making them more likely to become cancerous in the future. 

In recent years there has been an increase of HPV positive oropharyngeal cancer. And is seen in younger people aged between 40 and 50 years, who do not smoke.

The doctors test your oropharyngeal cancer cells to see if they contain the HPV virus. This affects what stage your cancer is and your outlook (prognosis).

We know that oropharyngeal cancers containing HPV tend to do better than cancers that don’t contain HPV. Doctors are looking at this in research to see if people with HPV positive cancers can have less intense treatments in the future.

How common is mouth and oropharyngeal cancer?

Each year, around 8,500 new cases of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer are diagnosed in the UK.

Last reviewed: 
27 May 2022
Next review due: 
27 May 2025
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