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The mouth and oropharynx

Men and women discussing mouth cancer

This page tells you about the mouth and oropharynx. You can find information about

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

The mouth (oral cavity)

The medical term for the mouth is the oral cavity. Mouth cancer includes cancer that starts anywhere in the oral cavity. This includes the lips, the inside lining of the cheeks and lips, the front two thirds of the tongue, the gums, the floor of the mouth, the roof of the mouth (called the hard palate) and the area behind the wisdom teeth.

The oropharynx

Pharynx is the medical name for the throat. The pharynx is divided into 3 parts. The oropharynx is the part of the throat just behind the mouth. Cancers that start in this area are called oropharyngeal cancers.

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 the neck. Cancers that start in the mouth and oropharynx can spread to these lymph nodes because they are close by. 

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the About mouth cancer section.

 

 

The mouth (oral cavity)

The mouth and oropharynx help us breathe, talk, eat, chew and swallow. The medical term for the mouth is the oral cavity. Mouth cancer includes cancer that starts anywhere in the oral cavity. In other words, the

  • Lips
  • Front two thirds of the tongue
  • Upper and lower gums, (the gingiva)
  • Inside lining of the cheeks and lips (the buccal mucosa)
  • Floor of the mouth, under the tongue
  • Roof of the mouth (the hard palate)
  • Area behind the wisdom teeth (called the retromolar trigone)

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

 

 

The oropharynx

Pharynx is the medical name for the throat. The pharynx is divided into 3 parts, and the oropharynx is one of these parts. The other two parts are the nasopharynx and the laryngopharynx.

The oropharynx connects the mouth to the top of the throat. It is the part of the throat just behind the mouth. Cancers that start in this area are called oropharyngeal cancers. Oropharynx is pronounced oar-oh-fah-rinks. Oropharyngeal is pronounced oar-oh-fah-rin-jee-al.

The areas within the oropharynx include

  • The back third of the tongue
  • The soft area at the back of the roof of the mouth (the soft palate)
  • The tonsils and two ridges of tissue in front of and behind the tonsils (called the tonsillar pillars)
  • The back wall of the throat

Diagram showing the parts of the oropharynx

 

What throat cancer means

The term throat cancer can be confusing because people use it to mean different things. The throat includes the 3 parts of the pharynx (including the oropharynx). People also use the term to include structures near the pharynx, such as the thyroid gland, the voice box (larynx) or the food pipe (oesophagus). So throat cancer is not a very precise term.

To avoid confusion, it is important to know the exact medical name of the cancer you or your relative have so that you can find the right information. Cancers are treated according to where they start in the body. The treatment for thyroid cancer is not the same as treatment for oropharyngeal cancer, for example. If you are not sure of the medical name of your cancer, you can ask your doctor or nurse to write it down for you. We have information on these cancers in the main cancer type section

There is information in our questions and answers section to help you understand the term throat cancer and guide you to information about the type of cancer you need to know about. The tonsils are part of the oropharynx and we have information about cancer of the tonsil

 

Lymph nodes in your neck

Like other parts of the body, the head and neck contain lymph nodes (also called lymph glands). These small, bean shaped glands are part of the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes are often the first place cancer cells spread to when they break away from a tumour.

Diagram showing the lymph nodes in the head and neck

There are major groups of lymph nodes in the neck. Mouth and oropharyngeal cancers can spread to these lymph nodes. So people with these types of cancer often need an operation to remove lymph nodes from the same side of the neck as the cancer. More rarely, a surgeon may suggest removing nodes from both sides. These operations are called neck dissections.

There is information about the lymph glands and the lymphatic system in the about your body section.

Cancer that begins in the lymph nodes (rather than spreading to them) is called lymphoma. If you are looking for information about lymphoma, this is not the right section for you. You need to go to the non Hodgkin lymphoma or Hodgkin lymphoma section.

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Updated: 30 September 2014