What is oropharyngeal cancer?

Here's another reason why you should quit smoking: It reduces your risk of many oral cancers.

Visiting the dentist regularly, in combination with brushing and flossing twice daily, goes beyond keeping your teeth as clean as can be. It can also enable you to act quickly on manifestations of disease. One of the more serious kinds is called oropharyngeal cancer. Here is what you need to know about this form of cancer's physical symptoms and side effects that can result and lead to diagnosis.

What is oropharyngeal cancer all about?
Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of oral cancer, which forms on the oropharynx, hence the name. The pharynx is the central portion of your throat that starts at the interior base of your nose and extends all the way down the neck and into the stomach, or more specifically, the esophagus. Much like your throat and the stomach, the oropharynx is composed of many parts and in addition to the walls that line it, it also includes the very back of your mouth, tonsils and base of your tongue.

Senior womanA sore throat and painful swallowing are classic symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer.

How common is oropharyngeal cancer?
In New Zealand, specifically, oropharyngeal cancer is fairly rare. According to the Cancer Society, between 2% and 4% of all cancers in the country are throat-related, with an estimated 300 new oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed annually. Globally, however, there are roughly 450,000 new throat-related cancer cases, based on estimates from the World Health Organisation and the Oral Cancer Foundation.

What causes oropharyngeal cancer?
While there's no known root cause of oropharyngeal cancer, certain activities and viruses can increase the risk of developing the disease. Chief among them is smoking. The rate of smoking is down globally – as well as in New Zealand, down to 13.1% in 2018 from 15.1% in 2013, according to the latest Census data – but it still remains common enough to warrant concern. Those who smoke multiple packs per day – and over several years – may have a higher likelihood of developing symptoms associated with oropharyngeal cancer.

The human papilloma virus (HRV), one of the more common sexually transmitted diseases, is also a known risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer. It's spread through sexual contact and identifiable by the development of warts. Frequently, HPV clears up on its own, but when the signs and symptoms don't diminish after several years, oral cancer risk rises, according to the Cancer Society.

Here are a few other lifestyle factors that may increase the chances of oropharyngeal cancer development:

  • Any type of tobacco use (chewing, cigars, pipes, etc.)
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Chewing betel quid (gutka), a smokeless tobacco popular throughout much of Asia

What signs should I look for?
There are a variety of classic indications that you may be affected by oropharyngeal cancer. They include, but aren't limited to, the following:

  • Long-lasting sore throat
  • Persistent earache
  • Trouble or difficulty with swallowing
  • Painful swallowing
  • Inability to open mouth to fullest extent
  • Lump in throat
  • Sore spot in mouth that won't heal
  • Swelling of jaw
  • Unexplainable or unintended weight loss
  • White spots on back of tongue

Although there are many symptoms that may point back to oropharyngeal cancer, the problem is these signs can also be related to something else entirely, such as strep throat or thyroid issue in the case of inexplicable weight loss. It's the combination of these manifestations that can be the tip-off. Additionally, symptoms persisting for more than two or three weeks is also an indication that you should seek a health professional to obtain a comprehensive exam and tell them about what's been going on.

Bad habit signOld habits die hard, but smoking is one that is well worth the effort.

How do I prevent oropharyngeal cancer?
Much like the cause, there's no known magic bullet for completely immunising yourself from oropharyngeal cancer. But there are things you can do that can dramatically reduce the chances.

Topping them all is to stop using cigarettes and tobacco once and for all. Smoking is a deadly habit and is associated with a wide assortment of adverse health conditions, many of which can compromise your oral health (e.g. tooth decay, inflamed gums and/or salivary glands, bad breath, plaque build-up, etc.). There are many smoking cessation programmes you can try out that can help you wean yourself off.

Eating a balanced diet is a good defensive mechanism as well, particularly foods that are high in nutrients and water. Leafy greens like lettuce and spinach are chockfull of calcium, which is an excellent mineral for maintaining good oral hygiene overall.

Last but not least, don't put off seeing the dentist. Although throat cancers are treated by oncologists, your dentist has the training and experience needed to identify potential signs and symptoms of oral cancers so you can receive treatment before it worsens. Early detection is crucial to ensure it doesn't spread to other parts of the body.

At City Dentists, your oral health is our foremost priority. Please schedule an appointment today for a checkup or cleaning. We hope to see you soon.