Learn more about the early signs and treatments for throat cancer.
Abnormal growths in the throat, tonsils, or larynx (voice box) are collectively referred to as throat cancer. This type of cancer may also affect tonsils, vocal cords, cartilage covering the windpipe (epiglottis), thyroid glands, and other structures within this area.
Most types of throat cancer develop in the cells that line the throat from where it starts, just behind the nose, to where it extends into the neck.
Causes, Risk Factors, and Symptoms
As with other types of cancer, genetic mutations cause cells in the throat to become cancerous. Risk factors include gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), smoking and chewing tobacco products, heavy drinking, and chemical exposure. Primarily affecting men and older adults, throat cancer has also been linked to human papillomavirus (HPV). Voice changes, a persistent sore throat, and difficulty swallowing are among the early signs that may suggest throat cancer. Symptoms may also include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Earaches and headaches
- Lumps in the neck
- Difficulty breathing
Types of Throat Cancer
Cancer of the throat is most likely to develop in the back of the tongue, tonsils, and soft palate (the oropharynx). Cancer can also develop in the part of the throat behind the nose (nasopharynx), behind the voice box (hypopharynx), in the glottis that holds the vocal cords, in the area just above vocal cords (supraglottis), or above the windpipe (subglottis).
After an initial examination of the throat, diagnosis often involves X-rays, CT scans, and other image tests to determine if other tissues are also affected. Whether or not the affected tissue is cancerous will be determined with the analysis of a tissue sample taken with an endoscope placed through the nose or mouth to access the throat. When throat cancer affects the oropharynx, testing for HPV is sometimes done since patients often respond better to treatment for cancer that’s virus-based.
Once a diagnosis is made, treatment will be based on the stage of cancer. In the early stages, radiation therapy may effectively treat throat cancer. With later stages of the disease, chemo is usually combined with radiation therapy. Patients may also benefit from targeted drug therapy.
Throat Cancer Surgery
Superficial cancers may be treated with endoscopic surgery performed through the throat without incisions. Such procedures are done with tools to cut, scrape, or vaporized affected tissues. Some small tumors may require removal of part of the voice box (laryngectomy). Throat cancer surgery might also involve:
- Complete removal of the voice box for larger tumors
- Removal of part of the throat (pharyngectomy)
- Neck dissection to remove cancerous lymph nodes
Not all throat irritations or irregularities will turn out to be cancer. Still, it’s best to be proactive when there’s anything out of the ordinary affecting your throat. An ear, nose, and throat specialist can rule out other disorders or conditions that may affect this area and recommend appropriate treatments if cancer is detected and therapy to address related eating, swallowing, and speech difficulties. Improvements with how radiation therapy is given have reduced the need for surgery if throat cancer is detected early enough.