Oropharyngeal cancer staging – 5 minute review

revised 11/12/2022
N.B. The initial version of this video had a few small errors in the staging, so we have corrected them.

In this video, Dr. Katie Bailey describes the anatomic subsites of the oropharynx and reviews how tumors are staged through four quick example cases.

Review of oropharynx anatomy. The oropharynx includes the tonsils (both lingual and palatine), the squamous mucosa of the pharynx, the uvula, and the vallecula.   oral cavity includes the lips, teeth, hard and soft palate, gingiva, retromolar trigone, the buccal mucosa, and anterior 2/3 of the tongue. The masticator space contains the muscles of mastication, the mandible, branches of the trigeminal nerve, lymph nodes, and minor salivary glands. 

Oropharyngeal cancer staging. Tumor (T) staging is based on the size of the tumor or invasion through adjacent structures. Nodal (N) staging is based on the number, location, and size of nodes, and metastasis (M) staging is based on the presence or absence of distant sites of disease.

Example case 1. There is a 2.4 cm mass of the right palatine tonsil. There is level 2 and 3 adenopathy. The lymphadenopathy compresses the jugular vein and displaces the adjacent sternocleidomastoid.  The size of the tumor makes this a T2 lesion, and the unilateral adenopathy less than 6 cm with multiple nodes makes it N2b. Because metastases can’t be evaluated with this information, it is given an ‘X’ for M staging right now.

Example case 2. There is a 3.2 cm mass in the tongue base and extending into the vallecula. There is no extension into the adjacent structures or fat. There is a single left sided level 2 lymph node that is somewhat prominent but isn’t definitely abnormal. That makes this a T2N0Mx tumor. If a PET or biopsy later shows that the node is positive, the staging can be changed.

Example case 3. There is a subtle mass of the right lateral wall of the oropharynx involving the tonsillar pillar and tongue base. This one is quite hard to see. There are cystic necrotic lymph nodes on the right, but none greater than 6 cm. A PET/CT showed no distant metastatic disease. That makes this a T1N2bM0 tumor.

Example case 4. This patient presented with cervical lymphadenopathy on the left but had no clear primary tumor in the oropharynx. There was no mass of the tongue base or elsewhere. The patient had a lung node suspicious for metastatic disease. A PET/CT showed that there was a primary in the soft palate. The mass was detected only by PET/CT. The final staging for this cancer is T1N2bM1.

Thanks for checking out this quick video on oropharyngeal cancer staging.

Thanks for checking out this quick video on oral cavity cancer staging. Be sure to tune back in for additional videos on staging of the other head and neck subsites. Also take a look at the head and neck topic page as well as all the head and neck videos on the site.


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