Causes and Diagnoses

Causes and Diagnoses of Throat Cancer

The two most common causes of throat (oropharyngeal) cancer are a prior infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) and smoking.

The type of throat cancer that is caused by HPV infections is much more common. This type of cancer arises either in the tonsil or in the base of tongue.


Clinical evaluation by a head and neck surgeon is required to accurately diagnose and outline the stage of cancer, which includes a biopsy to confirm the tissue diagnosis.

Some tissue can be obtained from the tumor in the throat. This can be performed in the office if the tumor is easily accessible. If not, a procedure under general anesthesia may be necessary.

Another type of biopsy is a fine needle aspiration, which can be performed by inserting a needle into a lymph node in the neck to obtain cells. At Northwestern, this is performed right in the head and neck surgery office under the guidance of an ultrasound machine to ensure that needle can be directed into the correct spot with minimum discomfort.

Imaging studies, such as a CT scan or PET-CT scan, may also be ordered to fully determine the anatomic extent of cancer at the primary site and lymph nodes, as well as to rule out any spread beyond the head and neck region into the lungs or bones.