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Stage Information for Oropharyngeal Cancer

The staging systems for oropharyngeal cancer are all clinical, based on the best possible estimate of the extent of disease before treatment. The assessment of the primary tumor is based on inspection and palpation, when possible, and by indirect mirror examination. The appropriate nodal drainage areas are examined by careful palpation.

The tumor must be confirmed histologically, and any other pathologic data obtained from a biopsy may be included. Additional radiographic studies may be included. As an adjunct to clinical examination, magnetic resonance imaging is used to evaluate the extent of disease in the soft tissues; computed tomography is used to evaluate the mandible and maxilla.[1] Positron emission tomography has been investigated as an imaging modality for recurrent oropharyngeal cancer.[2]

Complete endoscopy, typically under general anesthesia, is performed after completion of other staging studies to assess the surface extent of the tumor accurately, to assess deep involvement by palpation for muscle invasion, and to facilitate biopsy. Because of the incidence of multiple primary tumors occurring simultaneously, a careful search for other primary tumors of the upper aerodigestive tract is indicated.[3]

Definitions of TNM

The American Joint Committee on Cancer has designated staging by TNM classification to define oropharyngeal cancer.[3] Nonepithelial tumors such as those of lymphoid tissue, soft tissue, bone, and cartilage are not included.

Table 1. Primary Tumor (T)a

a Reprinted with permission from AJCC: Pharynx. In: Edge SB, Byrd DR, Compton CC, et al., eds.: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 7th ed. New York, NY: Springer, 2010, pp 41-56.
b Mucosal extension to lingual surface of epiglottis from primary tumors of the base of the tongue and vallecula does not constitute invasion of larynx.
TXPrimary tumor cannot be assessed.
T0No evidence of primary tumor.
TisCarcinomain situ.
T1Tumor ≤2 cm in greatest dimension.
T2Tumor >2 cm but ≤4 cm in greatest dimension.
T3Tumor >4 cm in greatest dimension or extension to lingual surface of epiglottis.
T4aModerately advanced local disease. Tumor invades the larynx, extrinsic muscle of tongue, medial pterygoid, hard palate, or mandible.b
T4bVery advanced local disease. Tumor invades lateral pterygoid muscle, pterygoid plates, lateral nasopharynx, or skull base, or encases carotid artery.

Table 2. Regional Lymph Nodes (N)a,b

a Reprinted with permission from AJCC: Pharynx. In: Edge SB, Byrd DR, Compton CC, et al., eds.: AJCC Cancer Staging Manual. 7th ed. New York, NY: Springer, 2010, pp 41-56.
b Metastases at level VII are considered regional lymph node metastases.
NXRegional lymph nodes cannot be assessed.
N0No regional lymph node metastasis.
N1Metastasis in a single ipsilateral lymph node, ≤3 cm in greatest dimension.
N2Metastasis in a single ipsilateral lymph node, >3 cm but ≤6 cm in greatest dimension, or metastasis in multiple ipsilateral lymph nodes, ≤6 cm in greatest dimension, or in bilateral or contralateral lymph nodes, ≤6 cm in greatest dimension.
N2aMetastasis in a single ipsilateral lymph node >3 cm but ≤6 cm in greatest dimension.
N2bMetastases in multiple ipsilateral lymph nodes, ≤6 cm in greatest dimension.
N2cMetastases in bilateral or contralateral lymph nodes, ≤6 cm in greatest dimension.
N3Metastasis in a lymph node >6 cm in greatest dimension.
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