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About mouth and oropharyngeal cancer

Find out who gets mouth or oropharyngeal cancer, where it starts and how common it is.

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 oropharynx is one of these parts. The other 2 parts are the nasopharynx and the laryngopharynx.

The oropharynx is the part of the throat just behind the mouth. Cancer starting in this area is called orophayngeal 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 becasue they are close by. 

Some people with mouth or oropharyngeal cancer often 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 throat cancer means

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 it

Mouth cancer is more common in men than women. 1 in 75 men and 1 in 150 women will be diagnosed with mouth cancer at some point in their life. 

More than 40 out of 100 mouth cancers (more than 40%) are diagnosed in people over 65. 

How common it is

Around 4000 new cases of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year. 

Last reviewed: 
30 Sep 2014
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    Tobias J and Hochhauser D
    Blackwell, 2015
     

  • Statistics provided by the Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK.

Information and help

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