Tonsil cancer is a form of throat cancer (oropharyngeal cancer) that affects the tonsils, which are located at the back of your throat. The majority of tonsil cancers are linked with exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Alcohol and tobacco use also are major risk factors for the development of tonsil cancer. Tonsil cancer affects more men than women.

Throat cancer, including tonsil cancer, may cause varied symptoms, such as a persistent sore throat, trouble swallowing, or a lump in your throat or neck.

  • Expertise and teamwork. Mayo's experienced specialists offer thorough and advanced treatment of tonsil cancer. Your care will be directed by ear, nose and throat (ENT) experts specializing in head and neck cancers who coordinate your multispecialty team. Team members may include experts in radiation oncology, medical oncology, plastic and reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation therapies, and other specialties as needed.
  • Latest treatments, including minimally invasive techniques. Mayo Clinic is one of the few medical centers in the U.S. with extensive experience in treating tonsil cancer with minimally invasive transoral robotic surgery. This type of surgery results in fewer adverse side effects and better quality of life compared with standard surgical approaches. Mayo radiation oncologists use the latest technologies, including intensity-modulated radiation therapy, which improve targeting of tumors and minimize radiation given to nearby normal structures.
  • Comprehensive cancer center. Mayo Clinic Cancer Center meets strict standards for a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, recognizing scientific excellence and a multispecialty approach focused on cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Clinical trials may be available to provide you with the opportunity to receive treatment using new techniques.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is ranked among the Best Hospitals for ear, nose and throat by U.S. News & World Report. Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., are ranked high performing for ear, nose and throat by U.S. News & World Report.

At Mayo Clinic, we assemble a team of specialists who take the time to listen and thoroughly understand your health issues and concerns. We tailor the care you receive to your personal health care needs. You can trust our specialists to collaborate and offer you the best possible outcomes, safety and service.

Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit medical institution that reinvests all earnings into improving medical practice, research and education. We're constantly involved in innovation and medical research, finding solutions to improve your care and quality of life. Your doctor or someone on your medical team is likely involved in research related to your condition.

Our patients tell us that the quality of their interactions, our attention to detail and the efficiency of their visits mean health care — and trusted answers — like they've never experienced.

Why Choose Mayo Clinic

What Sets Mayo Clinic Apart

Mayo Clinic's multispecialty team of doctors uses the latest diagnostic techniques to identify the type of tumor cells and the extent of cancer progression (stage). The first step in diagnosing tonsil cancer is an in-depth exam by your doctor. Your doctor also uses a mirror or a small, flexible, fiber-optic instrument to examine your tonsils and surrounding tissue (endoscopy). In tests that involve radiation, specialists carefully monitor doses to avoid the risk of radiation overexposure. Tests may include:

Before recommending treatment, doctors at Mayo Clinic often take a small sample of tissue (biopsy) from the tonsil. Pathologists examine the tissue under a microscope to determine the type of cancer cells present. Most often, the tonsil cancer tissue is classified as squamous cell carcinoma.

Read more about CT scan, MRI, PET scan and biopsy.

A team of experienced Mayo Clinic doctors from several specialties work together to develop a treatment plan for you. Treatment for tonsil cancer that has not spread may include radiation therapy and chemotherapy (chemoradiation) or surgery followed by radiation therapy, possibly with chemotherapy. Advanced cancers may require a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Surgery

Mayo's advanced surgical approaches preserve the option to use other therapies if more tumors develop after surgery. Surgery can be used to manage all stages of tonsil cancer, but it's favored for more early-stage cancers. The type of procedure performed depends on the size, type, location and depth of the tumor. Very small tumors that have not spread beyond the tonsil may be treated with surgery alone. Types of surgery include:

  • Transoral surgery. At Mayo Clinic, surgeons remove most tumors through the mouth (transoral surgery). This approach does not require lengthy reconstruction and rehabilitation of the throat region after surgery to improve speech and swallowing function.
  • Transoral robotic surgery. Head and neck surgeons offer transoral robotic surgery, which provides more precise access to the tumors. Typically this surgery is safe, effective and enables faster recovery times compared with standard surgical approaches.
  • External neck incision. Large tumors or tumors that have spread in the neck may be removed through an external neck incision. Mayo surgeons work closely with pathologists during surgery to identify tumor boundaries to allow for complete removal of the tumor. If the tumor has spread beyond the tonsils, the surgeon removes nearby lymph nodes.
  • Reconstructive surgery. People with advanced tumors who experience face, jaw or neck disfigurement after tumor removal may need reconstructive surgery. Ear, nose and throat (ENT) experts and surgeons in plastic and reconstructive surgery work together to restore the appearance of the face, jaw or neck and use of the mouth. At Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, experts in oral, jaw and face (maxillofacial) surgery may be involved.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy may be an option for early or advanced tonsil cancer. At Mayo Clinic you have access to the most advanced radiation therapy treatment, such as intensity-modulated radiation therapy, which precisely targets radiation to tumor cells and limits radiation exposure to nearby normal tissue.

Chemotherapy

To treat advanced tonsil cancer, your Mayo Clinic medical oncologist may recommend chemotherapy treatment. Chemotherapy can be a part of the initial treatment of locally advanced, but curable tonsil cancer in combination with radiation therapy, or for tonsil cancer that has recurred or spread to distant sites and is no longer curable.

Rehabilitation

Some people may need treatment to improve their swallowing and speech function after major surgery. Mayo offers help from speech, swallowing, physical and occupational therapists, and dietitians.

The Nicotine Dependence Center at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota can help people who want to stop using tobacco. Heavy use of tobacco may increase the risk of developing tonsil cancer or having a recurrence of a previously treated tonsil cancer.

Mayo Clinic works with hundreds of insurance companies and is an in-network provider for millions of people. In most cases, Mayo Clinic doesn't require a physician referral. Some insurers require referrals or may have additional requirements for certain medical care. All appointments are prioritized on the basis of medical need.

At Mayo Clinic in Arizona, specialists in ear, nose and throat (ENT), radiation oncology, medical oncology, plastic and reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation therapies, and other areas as needed, work together to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for you.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 800-446-2279 (toll-free) 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mountain Standard Time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic in Florida, specialists in ear, nose and throat (ENT), radiation oncology, medical oncology, plastic and reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation therapies, and other areas as needed, work together to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for you.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 904-953-0853 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

At Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, specialists in ear, nose and throat (ENT), radiation oncology, medical oncology, oral and jaw and face (maxillofacial) surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, rehabilitation therapies, and other areas as needed, work together to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for you.

If you want to successfully stop using tobacco, you can get expert help through the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center.

For appointments or more information, call the Central Appointment Office at 507-538-3270 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Central time, Monday through Friday or complete an online appointment request form.

See information on patient services at the three Mayo Clinic locations, including transportation options and lodging.

Mayo's Department of Otorhinolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery conducts research to address the needs of the person with head and neck cancer. Areas of research include:

  • Imaging studies for diagnosis and treatment planning
  • Combination therapies
  • Use of hyperbaric oxygen in combination with radiation and chemotherapy
  • Effectiveness of transoral robotic surgery on the voice box and other regions that are difficult to access through the mouth
  • Quality of life and speech and swallowing after treatment for throat cancer

Publications

See a list of publications by Mayo Clinic doctors on tonsil cancer on PubMed, a service of the National Library of Medicine.

Jun. 27, 2013