Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 10/2022

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. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this entire 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, give us the ability to chew, swallow, breathe, and talk.

The oral cavity includes the:

  • Lips

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

  • Upper and lower gums, called the gingiva

  • Front two-thirds of the tongue

  • Floor of the mouth under the tongue

  • Roof of the mouth, also called the hard palate

  • 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

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 can be differences in treatment between the 2 locations.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

The next section in this guide is StatisticsIt helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with oral and oropharyngeal cancers and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.