Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment

Different treatments are available for those with oropharyngeal cancer. Some treatments are called standard. This means they are the currently used treatments. Some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments.

When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. You may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment, while others are available during or after treatment.

Treatment for oropharyngeal cancer should be planned by a team of doctors with expertise in treating head and neck cancer.

Our treatment team includes the following specialists:

  • Head and neck surgeon (otorhinolaryngologist)
  • Medical oncologist
  • Radiation oncologist
  • Plastic surgeon
  • Dentist
  • Dietitian
  • Rehabilitation specialist
  • Speech therapist

Standard Treatments for Oropharyngeal Cancer

Treatment options vary depending on your situation including the stage of the cancer and other factors that may be present.

Talk with your team about the approach that is best for you. Standard treatments for oropharyngeal cancer include:


Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment of all stages of oropharyngeal cancer. A doctor may remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around the cancer. Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

TORS – TransOral Robotic Surgery

TORS is a minimally invasive, robotically-assisted surgical approach to removing tumors of the mouth, throat and voice box. It dramatically improves the treatment of head and neck cancers. Using this approach, tumors can be completely removed while preserving speech, swallowing, and other key functions, thus maintaining quality of life.

Drs. Gregory S. Weinstein and Bert W. O’Malley, Jr., head and neck surgeons, at Penn Medicine founded the world's first TransOral Robotic Surgery (TORS) program. They developed and researched the TORS approach for a variety of robotic surgical neck approaches for tumors (benign and malignant) of the mouth, voice box, tonsil, tongue and other parts of the throat.

Since 2005, over 350 Penn patients have participated in the world's first prospective clinical trials of TORS. These research trials comprise the largest and most comprehensive studies to date. Based on these studies, in 2009, the Food and Drug Administration cleared TransOral Robotic Surgery for treatment of tumors of the mouth, throat and voice box.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy X-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells or keep them from growing.

  • External radiation (or external beam radiation) comes from a machine outside the body. The machine directs high-energy rays at the cancer and some normal surrounding tissue. It is the most often used radiation treatment. The machine used to deliver the high-energy rays is called a linear accelerator.
  • Three-dimensional (3-D) conformal radiation treatment is a type of external beam radiation. It uses computers to allow doctors to more precisely target a tumor with radiation beams (using width, height, and depth).
  • Intensity-modulated radiation treatment (IMRT) is a type of 3-D conformal radiation treatment that uses radiation beams (usually X-rays) of various intensities to give different doses of radiation, at the same time, to small areas of tissue. This allows the delivery of higher doses of radiation to the tumor and lower doses to nearby healthy tissue.
  • Proton Therapy is the most precise form of radiation treatment for cancer possible, while minimizing damage to healthy tissue and surrounding organs.