The medical term for the mouth is the oral cavity. Mouth cancer can start anywhere in the oral cavity. This includes the:
- 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.
The medical term for the throat is the pharynx. The pharynx is divided into 3 parts.
The parts are:
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
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.
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.
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)
- 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 and oropharyngeal 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.
Most mouth and oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in people over 60.
How common it is
Each year around 7,800 new cases of mouth and oropharyngeal cancer are diagnosed in the UK.