Tonsil cancer care at Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic experts offer compassionate, comprehensive care to those with tonsil cancer.

Diagnosis at Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic's multispecialty team of doctors uses the latest diagnostic techniques to identify the cancer cells and determine the extent (stage) of the cancer progression.

Tests and procedures used to diagnose tonsil cancer include:

  • Physical exam. Your doctor will perform a comprehensive exam to understand your condition and investigate your signs and symptoms. Your doctor will carefully examine your mouth and will feel your neck for any abnormalities. A mirror or a small, flexible, fiber-optic scope may be used to closely examine your tonsils and surrounding tissue.
  • Imaging tests. Imaging tests help your doctor understand the extent of your cancer and aid in treatment planning. Your doctor may recommend computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).
  • Removing a sample of tissue for testing. In order to confirm the diagnosis, your doctor may recommend removing a sample of suspicious tissue from your tonsil for laboratory testing.

    In the lab, highly skilled and experienced pathologists examine the tissue under microscopes to determine the types of cells involved and rate the aggressiveness of the cancer.

    At Mayo Clinic, all tonsil cancers are tested for the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV) because this greatly influences prognosis and treatment.

Treatment at Mayo Clinic

At Mayo Clinic, a team of experienced doctors from several specialties works together with you to develop an individualized treatment plan to provide exactly the care you need.

Treatment for tonsil cancer that hasn't spread beyond the tonsil may include combined radiation therapy and chemotherapy (chemoradiation) or surgery followed by radiation therapy. Advanced tonsil cancers may require a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.


The goal of surgery for tonsil cancer is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Surgery can be used to manage all stages of tonsil cancer, but it's particularly effective for early-stage cancers. Whether surgery is right for you depends on the size, type, location and depth of the cancer.

Doctors at Mayo Clinic have access to advanced surgical approaches to ensure complete removal of tonsil cancer while preserving function.

Procedures used to treat tonsil cancer include:

  • Transoral surgery. At Mayo Clinic, surgeons remove most tumors through the mouth (transoral surgery). This approach doesn't require lengthy reconstruction and rehabilitation of the throat region after surgery to improve speech and swallowing function. To remove the cancer, doctors may use cutting tools or lasers during surgery.
  • Transoral robotic surgery. Head and neck surgeons offer transoral robotic surgery, which provides more-precise access to the cancer. Typically this surgery is safe, effective and enables faster recovery times compared with standard surgical approaches.
  • Open surgery. In certain cases, such as with large cancers or cancers that have spread in the neck, surgeons may use an approach that uses a large incision in the neck to remove the cancer.

    Mayo Clinic 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 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. Experts in oral and face (maxillofacial) surgery may also be involved.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays or protons, to kill cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be an option for early or advanced tonsil cancer.

Mayo Clinic radiation oncologists have access to the most advanced radiation therapy treatment, such as intensity-modulated radiation therapy and proton therapy, which precisely target radiation to tumor cells and limit radiation exposure to nearby normal tissue.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be used along with radiation therapy to treat locally advanced tonsil cancer. For tonsil cancer that has recurred or has spread to other areas of the body, chemotherapy may be recommended to slow the growth of the cancer.


Some people need help to improve their swallowing and speech function during and after tonsil cancer treatment. At Mayo Clinic you have access to a variety of experts to help you cope and recover, including specialists in speech and swallowing, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and dietitians.

If cancer or treatment makes it difficult for you to eat enough to get all the nutrients you need, your doctor may recommend tube feeding (enteral nutrition).

The Nicotine Dependence Center at Mayo Clinic can help people who want to stop using tobacco. Continuing to use tobacco increases your risk of a tonsil cancer recurrence.

Palliative care

Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness. At Mayo Clinic, palliative care specialists work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained professionals. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for people with cancer and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.

Expertise and rankings

Mayo Clinic doctors are widely respected for their experience and expertise in diagnosing and treating tonsil cancers.

Your Mayo Clinic care team

At Mayo Clinic, ear, nose and throat specialists (otorhinolaryngologists) form a multidisciplinary team with experts in radiation oncology, oncology, oral and maxillofacial surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, pathology, radiology, and rehabilitation medicine in order to provide whole-person care for people with tonsil cancer. Other professionals are included as needed.

Advanced diagnosis and treatment

Mayo Clinic doctors have access to the latest technology for treating tonsil cancer. Examples include transoral robotic surgery, intensity-modulated radiation therapy and proton therapy.

Most tonsil cancers diagnosed at Mayo Clinic are associated with HPV, which has a profound effect on tonsil cancer prognosis. For this reason, Mayo Clinic doctors test all tonsil cancers for HPV.

Mayo Clinic doctors are studying new treatment protocols for people with HPV-associated tonsil cancers that reduce the amount of treatment given and lower the risk of treatment side effects, without sacrificing cure rates.

Mayo Clinic doctors will work with you to review all of your treatment options and choose the treatment that best suits your needs and goals. The range of treatments offered to people with tonsil cancer includes surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. You may also choose to enroll in a clinical trial.

Nationally recognized expertise

Each year, Mayo Clinic doctors care for more than 400 people with tonsil cancer. This experience and expertise ensures that your care team is prepared with the knowledge and resources to provide you with exactly the care you need.

Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Mayo Clinic in Phoenix/Scottsdale, Ariz., and Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., are ranked among the Best Hospitals for cancer by U.S. News & World Report.

Mayo Clinic Cancer Center meets strict standards for a National Cancer Institute comprehensive cancer center, which recognizes scientific excellence and a multidisciplinary approach to cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Locations, travel and lodging

Mayo Clinic has major campuses in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona; Jacksonville, Florida; and Rochester, Minnesota. The Mayo Clinic Health System has dozens of locations in several states.

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Costs and insurance

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.

Learn more about appointments at Mayo Clinic.

Please contact your insurance company to verify medical coverage and to obtain any needed authorization prior to your visit. Often, your insurer's customer service number is printed on the back of your insurance card.

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July 30, 2020