What Is the Difference between Mouth and Throat Cancer?

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  • Written By: C. Daw
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2019
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Mouth and throat cancer affects the mouth and throat area. These two organs are part of the oral cavity, and have significant roles and functions like breathing, chewing, talking, and swallowing. The organs consist of important structures including the inside lining of the cheeks, the lips, gums, teeth, tongue, floor of the mouth, area behind the wisdom teeth, salivary glands, upper throat, mucosal surface, larynx and pharynx, and the tonsils. These different tissues which comprise the oral cavity are made up of building blocks called cells.

Under normal circumstances, the body's cells undergo a cycle of growth and division, forming new cells as needed. When cells grow old, they die, and newborn cells take their place. Errors do occasionally occur, and as a result, new cells form unnecessarily and the old cells do not die off. A mass of tissue is created by the extra cells, potentially leading to oral cancer.


Oral cancer may include both mouth and throat cancer. The former is caused by a growth of cells that develops uncontrolled in any part of the mouth including the lips, tongue, floor and the roof of the mouth, inside the cheeks and lips, and the area in the back of the mouth, behind the wisdom teeth. The latter is caused by benign tumors that form in the pharynx, which is the hollow tube inside the neck that starts behind the nose and ends up at the top of the windpipe and esophagus. Mouth and throat cancer are different types of cancer. Each type of mouth and throat cancer affects a different part of the mouth and throat area.

On one hand, mouth cancer includes different types and more 90% of these are squamous cell carcinomas. These type of cells are flat cells with similarities to skin, which cover the mouth. Carcinoma means cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma is a cancer that forms in these particular cells. One less common type of squamous cell carcinoma, verrucous carcinoma, is found in about one in twenty mouth cancer cases, or only 5% of them. Other types of mouth cancer are the following: salivary gland cancer which starts in the salivary gland cells and are mostly adenocarcinomas; lymphoma which starts in the lymph tissue near the base of the tongue and tonsils; melanoma which starts in skin pigment cells around the mouth or on the lips; and adenoid cystic cancer which develops from the glandular tissue and occur mostly in the parotid gland.

Conversely, throat cancer includes cancer of the upper part of the throat behind the nose known as the nasopharynx. The other areas that can be affected are the middle part of the pharynx, known as the oropharynx, and the bottom part of the pharynx, or the hypopharynx. Cancer of the larynx, which is commonly called the voice box, may also be included as a type of throat cancer. Like mouth cancer, most throat cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Throat cancer is also called a pharyngeal cancer.


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