Oropharyngeal cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells that begins in the oropharynx, the area at the back of the mouth.
The oropharynx is the passageway at the back of the mouth. It connects the mouth to the esophagus (tube through which food passes) and to the pharynx (the channel for the flow of air into and out of the lungs). It takes its name from the way it ties the oral cavity (hence the oro) to the rest of the pharynx, one part of which extends toward the back of the nose (nasopharynx). The base of the tongue, the soft palate (the soft roof of the mouth, above the base of the tongue) and the tonsils are part of the oropharynx.
If the oropharynx is blocked or injured in any way, the condition presents a threat to life because it interferes with both eating and breathing. Thus, an obstruction caused by oropharyngeal cancer is in itself a problem. Oropharyngeal cancer also contributes to problems with chewing and talking because of the importance of the oropharynx in these activities. If the oropharyngeal cancer spreads to the bone, muscle, and soft tissue in the neck, there is a severe effect on the ability of the neck to support the head. In individuals with oropharyngeal cancer that has spread, surgical options might be limited.
Oropharyngeal cancer usually begins in the squamous cells of the epithelial tissue. The squamous cells are flat, and often layered. The epithelial tissue forms coverings for the surfaces of the body. Skin, for example, has an outer layer of epithelial tissue. Throughout the oropharynx there are some very small salivary glands and one of more of them sometimes becomes the site of tumor growth.
Many times cancer that begins in the oropharynx spreads to the base of the tongue. Oropharyngeal cancer can spread to the muscle and bone in the neck, and also to the soft tissue that fills the space around the muscle and bone.
Diane M. Calabrese, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,