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Cancers of the nasopharynx (the part of the throat behind the nose and above the oropharynx) are discussed in the American Cancer Society document Nasopharyngeal Cancer.
Cancers that start in the larynx (voice box) or the hypopharynx (the part of the throat below the oropharynx) are discussed in the American Cancer Society document Laryngeal & Hypopharyngeal Cancer.
Tumors and growths in the oral cavity and oropharynx: Many types of tumors (abnormal growths of cells) can develop in the oral cavity and oropharynx. They fit into 3 general categories:
Some are benign, or non-cancerous, which means they do not invade other tissues and do not spread to other parts of the body.
Some growths start off harmless but can later develop into cancer. These are known as pre-cancerous conditions.
Other tumors are cancerous. They can grow into surrounding tissues and spread to other parts of the body.
Benign (non-cancerous) tumors: Many types of benign tumors and tumor-like conditions can start in the mouth or throat:
Eosinophilic,granuloma,Fibroma,Granular cell tumor, Keratoacanthoma, Leiomyoma, Osteochondroma, Lipoma, Schwannoma, Neurofibroma, Papilloma, Condyloma acuminatum, Verruciform xanthoma, Pyogenic granuloma, Rhabdomyoma, Odontogenic tumors (tumors that start in tooth-forming tissues)
These non-cancerous tumors start from different kinds of cells and have a variety of causes. Some of them may cause problems, but they are not likely to be life-threatening. The usual treatment is to surgically remove them since they are unlikely to recur (come back).
Leukoplakia and erythroplakia (possible pre-cancerous conditions)
Leukoplakia and erythroplakia are terms used to describe certain types of abnormal tissue that can be seen in the mouth or throat:
Leukoplakia is a white or gray patch.
Erythroplakia is a flat or slightly raised, red area that often bleeds easily if it is scraped.
Erythroleukoplakia is a patch with both red and white areas.
Your dentist or dental hygienist may be the first person to spot these white or red areas. They may be a cancer, they may be a pre-cancerous condition called dysplasia, or they could be a relatively harmless condition.
Dysplasia is graded as mild, moderate, or severe, based on how abnormal the tissue looks under the microscope. Knowing the degree of dysplasia helps predict how likely it is to progress to cancer or to go away on its own or after treatment. For example, severe dysplasia is more likely to become a cancer, while mild dysplasia is more likely to go away completely.
The most frequent causes of leukoplakia and erythroplakia are smoking and chewing tobacco. Poorly fitting dentures that rub against the tongue or the inside of the cheeks can also cause these conditions. But sometimes, there may be no obvious cause. Dysplasia will often go away if the cause is removed.
A biopsy is the only way to know for certain if an area of leukoplakia or erythroplakia contains dysplastic (pre-cancerous) cells or cancer cells. For a biopsy, a sample of tissue from the abnormal area is removed and then looked at under the microscope. But other tests may be used first to help determine if they might be cancers (and therefore will need a biopsy) or to choose the best area to sample for a biopsy. These tests are described in the section “Can oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers be found early?”
Most cases of leukoplakia do not develop into cancer. But as many as 1 out of 5 leukoplakias is either cancerous when first found or has pre-cancerous changes that eventually progress to cancer if not properly treated.
Erythroplakia and erythroleukoplakia are less common but are usually more serious. Most of these red lesions turn out to be cancer when they are biopsied or will develop into cancer later.
However, it is important to note that most oral cancers do not develop from pre-existing lesions (either leukoplakia or erythroplakia).
Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers
Several types of cancers can start in the mouth or throat.
Squamous cell carcinomas : More than 9 of 10 cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx are squamous cell carcinomas, also called squamous cell cancers. These cancers begin in early forms of squamous cells, which are flat, scale-like cells that normally form the lining of the mouth and throat.
The earliest form of squamous cell cancer is called carcinoma in situ, meaning that the cancer cells are present only in the outer layer of cells called the epithelium. This is different from invasive squamous cell carcinoma, where the cancer cells have grown into deeper layers of the oral cavity or oropharynx.
Verrucous carcinoma : Verrucous carcinoma is a type of squamous cell carcinoma that makes up less than 5% of all oral cancers. It is a low-grade (slow growing) cancer that rarely spreads to other parts of the body, but it can grow deeply into surrounding tissue.
If they are not treated, areas of ordinary squamous cell cancer may develop within some verrucous carcinomas. Some verrucous carcinomas may already have areas of ordinary squamous cell cancer that are not recognized in the biopsy sample. Cells from these areas of squamous cell carcinoma may then spread to other parts of the body.
For all of these reasons, verrucous carcinomas should be removed promptly, along with a wide margin of surrounding normal tissue.
Minor salivary gland carcinomas : Minor salivary gland cancers can develop in the glands in the lining of the mouth and throat. There are several types of minor salivary gland cancers, including adenoid cystic carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma, and polymorphous low-grade adenocarcinoma.
Lymphomas : The tonsils and base of the tongue contain immune system (lymphoid) tissue, where cancers called lymphomas can start. For more information about these cancers refer to the American Cancer Society documents Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children, and Hodgkin disease.
The information in the rest of this document about oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer refers only to squamous cell carcinoma.
What are the risk factors for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers?
A risk factor is anything that changes a person’s chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors. For example, exposing skin to strong sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer. Smoking is a risk factor for many cancers.
There are different kinds of risk factors. Some, such as your age or race, can’t be changed. Others may be related to personal choices such as smoking, drinking, or diet. Some factors influence risk more than others. But risk factors don't tell us everything. Having a risk factor, or even several, does not mean that a person will get the disease. Also, not having any risk factors doesn't mean that you won't get it, either.
Some people who have oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer have few or no known risk factors, and others who have several risk factors never develop the disease. Even if someone does have risk factors, it is impossible to know for sure how much they contributed to causing the cancer.
Tobacco and alcohol: Tobacco and alcohol use are among the strongest risk factors for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers.
Tobacco use: Most people with oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers use tobacco, and the risk of developing these cancers is related to how much and how long they smoked or chewed.
Smokers are many times more likely than non-smokers to develop these cancers. Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes can cause cancers anywhere in the mouth or throat, as well as causing cancers of the larynx (voice box), lungs, esophagus, kidneys, bladder, and several other organs.
It is important for smokers who have been treated for oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer to quit smoking, even if their cancer seems to be cured. Continuing to smoke greatly increases their risk of developing a second cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), or lung.
Oral tobacco products (snuff or chewing tobacco) are linked with cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface of the lips. Using oral tobacco products for a long time poses an especially high risk. These products also cause gum disease, destruction of the bone sockets around teeth, and tooth loss. It is also important for people who have been treated for oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer to give up any oral tobacco products.
Drinking alcohol : Drinking alcohol increases the risk of developing oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. The risk goes up even more for people who use both tobacco and alcohol. About 7 out of 10 patients with oral cancer are heavy drinkers.
Betel quid and gutka : In Southeast Asia, South Asia, and certain other areas of the world, many people chew betel quid, which is made up of areca nut and lime wrapped in a betel leaf. Many people in these areas also chew gutka, a mixture of betel quid and tobacco. People who chew betel quid or gutka have an increased risk of cancer of the mouth.
Human papilloma virus infection : Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of more than 100 types of viruses. They are called papilloma viruses because some of them cause a type of growth called a papilloma. Papillomas are not cancers, and are more commonly called warts.
Infection with certain types of HPV can also cause some forms of cancer, including cancers of the penis, cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, and throat. Other types of HPV cause warts in different parts of the body.
HPV can be passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact. One way HPV is spread is through sex, including vaginal and anal intercourse and even oral sex.
HPV types are given numbers. The type linked to throat cancer (including cancer of the oropharynx) is HPV16. .
Most people with HPV infections of the mouth and throat have no symptoms, and only a very small percentage develop oropharyngeal cancer. Oral HPV infection is more common in men than in women. The risk of oral HPV infection is linked to certain sexual behaviors, such as open mouth kissing and oral-genital contact (oral sex). The risk also increases with the number of sexual partners a person has. Smoking also increases the risk of oral HPV infection.
The number of oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV has risen dramatically over the past few decades. HPV DNA (a sign of HPV infection) is now found in about 2 out of 3 oropharyngeal cancers and in a much smaller fraction of oral cavity cancers. The reason for the rising rate of HPV-linked cancers is unclear, although some think that it could be due to changes in sexual practices in recent decades, in particular an increase in oral sex.
People with oral and oropharyngeal cancer linked with HPV infection tend to be younger and are less likely to be smokers and drinkers.
Oropharyngeal cancers that contain HPV DNA tend to have a better outlook than those without HPV.
Gender : Oral and oropharyngeal cancers are about twice as common in men as in women. This might be because men have been more likely to use tobacco and alcohol in the past. While this is changing, the recent rise in HPV-linked cancers has been mainly among younger men, so the difference in occurrence in genders is likely to remain in the near future.
Age : Cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx usually take many years to develop, so they are not common in young people. Most patients with these cancers are older than 55 when the cancers are first found. But this may be changing as HPV-linked cancers become more common. People with cancers linked to HPV infection tend to be younger.
Ultraviolet (UV) light : Sunlight is the main source of UV light for most people. Cancers of the lip are more common in people who have outdoor jobs where they have prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Poor nutrition : Several studies have found that a diet low in fruits and vegetables is linked with an increased risk of cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx.
Weakened immune system : Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are more common in people who have a weak immune system. A weak immune system can be caused by certain diseases present at birth, the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and certain medicines (such as those given after organ transplants).
Graft-versus-host disease : Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) is a condition that sometimes occurs after a stem cell transplant. During this medical procedure, blood stem cells from a donor are used to replace bone marrow that has been destroyed by disease, chemotherapy, or radiation. GVHD occurs when the donor stem cells recognize the patient’s cells as foreign and launch an attack against them. GVHD can affect many tissues of the body, including those in the mouth. This increases the risk of oral cancer, which can occur as early as 2 years after GVHD.
Genetic syndromes : People with certain syndromes caused by inherited defects (mutations) in certain genes have a very high risk of mouth and throat cancer.
Fanconi anemia is a condition that can be caused by inherited defects in several genes that contribute to repair of DNA. People with this syndrome often have blood problems at an early age, which may lead to leukemia or aplastic anemia. They also have a very high risk of cancer of the mouth and throat.
Dyskeratosis congenita is a genetic syndrome that can cause aplastic anemia, skin rashes, and abnormal fingernails and toenails. People with this syndrome also have a very high risk of developing cancer of the mouth and throat at an early age.
Lichen planus: This disease occurs mainly in middle-aged people. Most often it affects the skin (usually as an itchy rash), but it sometimes affects the lining of the mouth and throat, appearing as small white lines or spots. A severe case may slightly increase the risk of oral cancer.
Do we know what causes oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers?
Doctors and scientists can’t say for sure what causes each case of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer. But they do know many of the risk factors and how some of them cause cells to become cancerous.
Scientists believe that some risk factors, such as tobacco or heavy alcohol use, may cause these cancers by damaging the DNA of cells that line the inside of the mouth and throat.
DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes — the instructions for how our cells function. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. However, DNA affects more than how we look. Some genes have instructions for controlling when cells grow and divide. Genes that promote cell division are calledoncogenes. Genes that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.
When tobacco and alcohol damage the cells lining the mouth and throat, the cells in this layer must grow more rapidly to repair this damage. The more often cells need to divide, the more chances there are for them to make mistakes when copying their DNA, which may increase their chances of becoming cancerous.
Many of the chemicals found in tobacco can damage DNA directly. Scientists are not sure whether alcohol directly damages DNA, but they have shown that alcohol helps many DNA-damaging chemicals get into cells more easily. This may be why the combination of tobacco and alcohol damages DNA far more than tobacco alone.
This damage can cause certain genes (for example, those in charge of starting or stopping cell growth) to malfunction. Abnormal cells can begin to build up, forming a tumor. With additional damage, the cells may begin to spread into nearby tissue and to distant organs.
In human papilloma virus (HPV) infections, the virus causes cells to make 2 proteins known as E6 and E7. When these are made, they turn off some genes that normally help keep cell growth in check. Uncontrolled cell growth may in some cases lead to cancer. When HPV DNA is found in the tumor cells, especially in non-smokers who drink little or no alcohol, HPV is thought to be the likely cause of the cancer.
Some people inherit DNA mutations (changes) from their parents that increase their risk for developing certain cancers. But inherited oncogene or tumor suppressor gene mutations are not believed to cause very many cancers of the oral cavity or oropharynx.
For some oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, there is no clear cause. Some of these cancers may be linked to other, as of yet unknown risk factors. Others may have no external cause — they may just occur because of random DNA mutations inside a cell.
Can oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers be prevented?
Avoid risk factors : Not all cases of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer can be prevented, but the risk of developing these cancers can be greatly reduced by avoiding certain risk factors.
Limit smoking and drinking : Tobacco and alcohol are among the most important risk factors for these cancers. Not starting to smoke is the best way to limit the risk of getting these cancers. Quitting tobacco also greatly lowers your risk of developing these cancers, even after many years of use. The same is true of heavy drinking. Limit how much alcohol you drink, if you drink at all.
Limit exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light : Ultraviolet radiation is an important and avoidable risk factor for cancer of the lips, as well as for skin cancer. If possible, limit the time you spend outdoors during the middle of the day, when the sun’s UV rays are strongest. If you are out in the sun, wear a wide-brimmed hat and use sunscreen and lip balm with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.
Wear properly fitted dentures : Avoiding sources of oral irritation (such as dentures that do not fit properly) may also lower your risk for oral cancer.
Eat a healthy diet : A poor diet has been linked to oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers, although it’s not exactly clear what substances in healthy foods might be responsible for reducing the risk of these cancers.
In general, eating a healthy diet is much better than adding vitamin supplements to an otherwise unhealthy diet. The American Cancer Society recommends eating a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods. This includes eating at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits every day. Choosing whole-grain breads, pastas, and cereals instead of refined grains, and eating fish, poultry, or beans instead of processed meat and red meat may also help lower your risk of cancer.
Avoid HPV infection : The risk of HPV infection of the mouth and throat is increased in those who have oral sex and multiple sex partners. These infections are also more common in smokers, which may be because the smoke damages their immune system or the cells that line the oral cavity. These infections are common and rarely cause symptoms. Although HPV infection is linked to oropharyngeal cancer, most people with HPV infections of the mouth and throat do not go on to develop this cancer. In addition, many oral and oropharyngeal cancers are not related to HPV infection.
In recent years, vaccines that reduce the risk of infection with certain types of HPV have become available. These vaccines were originally meant to lower the risk of cervical cancer, but they have been shown to lower the risk of other cancers linked to HPV as well, such as cancers of the anus, vulva, and vagina. HPV vaccination may also lower the risk of mouth and throat cancers, but this has not yet been proven.
Since these vaccines are only effective if given before someone is infected with HPV, they are given at an early age, before a person is likely to become sexually active.
Treat pre-cancerous growths : Areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia in the mouth sometimes progress to cancer. Doctors often remove these areas, especially if a biopsy shows they contain areas of dysplasia (abnormal growth) when looked at under a microscope.
But removing areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia does not always prevent someone from getting oral cavity cancer. Studies have found that even when these areas are completely removed, people with certain types of erythroplakia and leukoplakia still have a higher chance of developing a cancer in some other area of their mouth.
This may be because the whole lining of the mouth has probably been exposed to the same cancer-causing agents that led to these pre-cancers (like tobacco). This means that the entire area may already have early changes that can lead to cancer. This concept is called field cancerization.
It is important for patients who have had these areas removed to continue having checkups to look for cancer, and for new areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia.
Chemoprevention : In recent years, doctors have been testing medicines to try to help lower the risk of these cancers. This approach, called chemoprevention, is particularly needed for people who have a higher risk of these cancers, such as those with leukoplakia or erythroplakia.
Several kinds of drugs have been studied for oropharyngeal cancer chemoprevention, but most of the research has focused on drugs related to vitamin A (retinoids). Studies so far have shown that retinoids can cause some areas of leukoplakia to shrink or even go away temporarily. But these studies have not found a long-term benefit in preventing cancer or helping patients live longer. At the same time, most of these drugs have bothersome and even serious side effects.
Vitamin A supplements are not recommended unless prescribed by a doctor for a specific health problem. High doses of vitamin A do not decrease cancer risk and can be toxic. Vitamin A supplements may, in fact, raise the risk of some cancers. This is why researchers are studying synthetic (man-made) retinoids, which may be more effective than natural vitamin A in preventing cancer.
Can oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers be found early?
Many pre-cancers and cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx can be found early, during routine screening exams by a dentist, doctor, dental hygienist, or by self-exam.
Some early cancers have symptoms that cause patients to seek medical or dental attention. Unfortunately, some cancers may not cause symptoms until they’ve reached an advanced stage, or they may cause symptoms similar to those caused by a disease other than cancer, such as a toothache. Some dentists and doctors recommend that you look at your mouth in a mirror every month to check for any abnormal areas.
Regular dental checkups that include an exam of the entire mouth are important in finding oral and oropharyngeal cancers (and pre-cancers) early. The American Cancer Society also recommends that doctors examine the mouth and throat as part of a routine cancer-related checkup.
Along with a clinical exam of the mouth and throat, some dentists and doctors may use special dyes and/or lights to look for abnormal areas, especially if you are at higher risk for these cancers. If an abnormal area is spotted, some of these tests may also be used to help determine if they might be cancers (and therefore will need a biopsy) or to choose the best area to sample for a biopsy.
One method uses a dye called toluidine blue. If the dye is spread over an abnormal area, it will stain blue.
Another method uses laser light. When the light is reflected off abnormal tissue, it looks different from the light reflected off normal tissue.
Another system uses a special light to view the area after the mouth has been rinsed with a solution of acetic acid (the acid in vinegar).
If an abnormal area is found, sometimes it can be evaluated by exfoliative cytology. In this technique, the lesion is scraped with a stiff brush (brush biopsy), and the cells from the scraping can be looked at under the microscope.
How are oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed?
Some cancers or pre-cancers of the mouth and throat may be found during an exam by a doctor or dentist, but many of these cancers are found because of signs or symptoms a person is having. If cancer is suspected, tests will be needed to confirm the diagnosis.
Signs and symptoms of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer
Many of these signs and symptoms can also be caused by less serious, benign problems, or even by other cancers. Still, it is very important to see a doctor or dentist if any of these conditions lasts more than 2 weeks so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.
If you have any of the signs or symptoms that suggest cancer may be present, your doctor may recommend further exams and tests.
Exams and tests used to find these cancers
Medical history and physical exam
As a first step, your doctor will probably ask you questions about symptoms, possible risk factors, and any other medical conditions you may have.
Your doctor will examine you to look for possible signs of an oral or oropharyngeal cancer (or pre-cancer). These could be bumps or other abnormal areas on your head, face or neck, or problems with the nerves of the face and mouth. The doctor will look at the entire inside of your mouth, and may feel around in it with a gloved finger. He or she may also use other tests to look for abnormal areas in the mouth or throat, or to get a better sense of what an abnormal area might be. Some of these tests are described in the section “Can oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers be found early?”
If there is a reason to think you might have cancer, your doctor will refer you to a doctor who specializes in these cancers, such as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon or a head and neck surgeon (also known as an ear, nose, and throat [ENT] doctor or an otolaryngologist). This specialist will probably do other exams and tests.
Complete head and neck exam: The specialist will pay special attention to the head and neck area, being sure to look and feel for any abnormal areas.This exam will include the lymph nodes of the neck, which will be felt carefully for any signs of cancer.
Because the oropharynx is deep inside the neck and some parts are not easily seen, the doctor may use mirrors or special fiber-optic scopes to examine these areas while you are in the doctor’s office.
Indirect pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy: For this exam, the doctor uses small mirrors placed at the back of your mouth to look at the throat, base of the tongue, and part of the larynx (voice box).
Direct (flexible) pharyngoscopy and laryngoscopy: For this exam, the doctor inserts a flexible fiber-optic scope (called an endoscope) through the mouth or nose to look at some areas that can’t easily be seen with mirrors, such as the region behind the nose (nasopharynx) and the larynx, or to see certain areas clearer.
Both types of exams can be done in the doctor’s office. For either type of exam, the doctor may spray the back of your throat with numbing medicine first to help make the exam easier.
Panendoscopy : During a panendoscopy, the doctor uses different types of endoscopes passed down the mouth or nose to perform laryngoscopy, esophagoscopy, and (at times) bronchoscopy. This lets the doctor thoroughly examine the oral cavity, oropharynx, larynx (voice box), esophagus (tube leading to the stomach), and the trachea (windpipe) and bronchi (breathing passageways in the lungs).
This exam is usually done in an operating room while you are under general anesthesia (asleep). The doctor uses a laryngoscope to look for tumors in the throat and larynx. Other parts of the mouth, nose, and throat are examined as well. If a tumor is found that is large or seems likely to spread, the doctor may also need to use an esophagoscope to look into the esophagus or a bronchoscope to look into the trachea and bronchi.
Your doctor will look at these areas through the scopes to find any tumors, see how large they are, and see how far they may have spread to surrounding areas. A small piece of tissue from any tumors or other abnormal areas may be removed (biopsied) to be looked at under a microscope to see if they contain cancer. Biopsies can be done with special instruments operated through the scopes.
Using biopsies to diagnose these cancers : In a biopsy, the doctor removes a sample of tissue to be looked at under a microscope. The actual diagnosis of oral and oropharyngeal cancers can only be made by a biopsy. A sample of tissue or cells is always needed to confirm that cancer is really present before starting treatment. Several types of biopsies may be used, depending on each case.
Exfoliative cytology : In this technique, the doctor scrapes a suspicious area and smears the collected tissue onto a glass slide. The sample is then stained with a dye so the cells can be seen under the microscope. If any of the cells look abnormal, the area can then be biopsied.
The advantage of this technique is that it is easy, and even only slightly abnormal-looking areas can be examined. This can make for an earlier diagnosis and a greater chance of cure if there is cancer. But this method does not detect all cancers. Sometimes it’s not possible to tell the difference between cancerous cells and abnormal but non-cancerous cells (dysplasia) with this approach, so a biopsy would still be needed.
Incisional biopsy : For this type of biopsy, the doctor cuts a small piece of tissue from an area that looks abnormal. This is the most common type of biopsy to sample areas in the mouth or throat.
The biopsy can be done either in the doctor’s office or in the operating room, depending on where the tumor is and how easy it is to get a good tissue sample. If it can be done in the doctor’s office, the area around the tumor will be numbed before the biopsy is taken. If the tumor is deep inside the mouth or throat, the biopsy might be done in the operating room with the patient under general anesthesia (in a deep sleep). The surgeon uses special instruments through an endoscope to remove small tissue samples.
Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy : For this test, the doctor uses a very thin, hollow needle attached to a syringe to draw (aspirate) some cells from a tumor or lump. These cells are then looked at under a microscope to see if cancer is present.
FNA biopsy is not used to sample abnormal areas in the mouth or throat, but is sometimes used when a patient has a neck mass that can be felt or seen on a CT scan. FNA can be helpful in several different situations, such as:
Finding the cause of a new neck mass: An FNA biopsy is sometimes used as the first test for someone with a newly found neck lump.
The FNA may show that the neck mass is a benign (non-cancerous) lymph node that has grown in reaction to a nearby infection, such as a sinus or tooth infection. In this case, treatment of the infection is all that is needed. Or the FNA may find a benign, fluid-filled cyst that can be cured by surgery. But even when the FNA results are benign, if the patient has symptoms suggesting cancer, more tests (such as pharyngoscopy and panendoscopy) are needed.
If the FNA finds cancer, the doctor looking at the sample can usually tell what type of cancer it is. If the cells look like a squamous cell cancer, more exams will be done to search for the source of the cancer in the mouth and throat. If the FNA shows a different type of cancer, such as lymphoma or a cancer that has spread to a lymph node in the neck from another organ (like the thyroid, stomach, or lungs) more tests will be done to find it, and specific treatment for that type of cancer will be given.
Learning the extent of a known cancer: FNA is often done in patients already known to have oral or oropharyngeal cancer to find out if the cancer has spread to lymph nodes in the neck. This information will help the doctor decide the best treatment for the cancer.
Seeing if cancer has come back after treatment: FNA may be used in patients whose cancer has been treated by surgery and/or radiation therapy, to find out if a new neck mass in the treated area is scar tissue or a cancer that has come back.
Lab tests of biopsy samples : All biopsy samples are sent to a lab to be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist, a doctor who is specially trained to diagnose cancer with lab tests. The doctor can usually tell cancer cells from normal cells, as well as what type of cancer it is, by the way the cells look under the microscope. In some cases, the doctor may need to coat the cells with special stains to help tell what type of cancer it is.
HPV testing: For cancers of the throat, doctors often have the biopsy samples tested to see if HPV infection is the likely cause. This information can help the doctor predict the probable course of the cancer, as people whose cancers are linked to HPV tend to do better than those whose cancers are not.
This testing is not routinely used to guide treatment at this time, but in the future it might help doctors decide which patients might be able to get less aggressive treatment.
Imaging tests: Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, or radioactive substances to create pictures of the inside of your body. Imaging tests are not used to diagnose oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers, but they may be done for a number of reasons both before and after a cancer diagnosis, including:
Chest x-ray : An x-ray of your chest may be done to see if the cancer has spread to your lungs. Unless your cancer is far advanced, it is not likely that it will have spread. This x-ray is most often done in an outpatient setting. If the results are not normal, your doctor may order a computed tomography (CT) scan or other test to look at your lungs in more detail.
Computed tomography (CT) : The computed tomography (CT) scan uses x-ray test that produces detailed, cross-sectional images of your body. Instead of taking one picture, like a standard x-ray, a CT scanner takes many pictures as it rotates around you. A computer then combines these pictures into an image of a slice of your body. Unlike a regular x-ray, a CT scan creates detailed images of the soft tissues and organs in the body.
A PET scan may be used to look for possible areas of cancer spread, especially if there is a good chance that the cancer is more advanced. This test also can be used to help tell if a suspicious area seen on another imaging test is cancer or not.
Barium swallow : A barium swallow (also known as an upper GI series) can be used to examine the lining of the upper part of the digestive system, especially the esophagus (the tube connecting the throat to the stomach). In this test, you drink a chalky liquid called barium to coat the walls of the throat and esophagus. A series of x-rays of the throat and esophagus is taken as you swallow, which the barium outlines clearly.
Other tests : Other types of tests may be done as part of a workup if a patient has been diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer. These tests are not used to diagnose the cancer, but they may be done for other reasons, such as to see if a person is healthy enough for treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy.
Blood tests : No blood tests can diagnose tumors of the oral cavity or oropharynx. However, your doctor may order routine blood tests to help determine your overall health, especially before treatment such as surgery. Such tests can help diagnose malnutrition, low red blood counts (anemia), liver disease, and kidney disease. Blood tests may also suggest the cancer has spread to the liver or bone. When this occurs, more testing is needed.
Other tests before surgery : If surgery is planned, you might also have an electrocardiogram (EKG) to make sure your heart is functioning well. Some people having surgery also may need tests of their lung function. These are known as pulmonary function tests (PFTs).
Dental exam : When radiation therapy will be used as part of the treatment, it is likely you will be asked to see a dentist, who will help with preventive dental care and may remove teeth, if necessary, before radiation treatment is started.
How are oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers staged?
The TNM staging system : A staging system is a standard way for doctors to describe and summarize how far a patient’s cancer has spread. The most common system used to describe the extent of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers is the TNM system of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC). The TNM system for staging describes 3 key pieces of information: