Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2016

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about these diseases and the parts of the body they may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer. To see other pages, use the menu. Think of that menu as a roadmap to this full guide.

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

Cancer of the oral cavity and cancer of the oropharynx are 2 of the most common types of cancer that develop in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer. The oral cavity and oropharynx, along with other parts of the head and neck, contribute to our ability to chew, swallow, breathe, and talk.

The oral cavity includes the:

  • Lips

  • Lining of the lips and cheeks, called the buccal mucosa

  • Gingiva, which is the upper and lower gums

  • Front two-thirds of the tongue

  • Floor of the mouth under the tongue

  • Hard palate or the roof of the mouth

  • Retromolar trigone, which is the small area behind the wisdom teeth

The oropharynx begins where the oral cavity stops. It includes the:

  • Soft palate at the back of the mouth

  • Part of the throat behind the mouth

  • Tonsils

  • Base of the tongue

More than 90% of oral and oropharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinoma. This means that they begin in the flat, squamous cells found in the lining of the mouth and throat. The most common locations for cancer in the oral cavity are:

  • Tongue

  • Tonsils

  • Oropharynx

  • Gums

  • Floor of the mouth

Oral - Normal Lip

Oral - Normal Lip Tissue
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Oral cavity - Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Oral cavity - Squamous Cell Carcinoma
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These images used with permission by the College of American Pathologists.

Although oral cancer and oropharyngeal cancer are commonly described using 1 phrase, it is important to identify exactly where the cancer began. This is because there are differences in treatment between the 2 locations.

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