What is throat cancer?
Throat cancer refers to cancerous growths that develop in the throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), or tonsils. Your throat is a muscular tube that begins at the back of your nose and ends at your neck. It begins in the fat cells inside the throat. Your larynx is located below your throat and it can also cause this disease.
The larynx is made of cartilage and has vibrating vocal cords that make you ring as you speak. It also affects the part of the cartilage (epiglottis) that acts as the covering of the trachea. Another form of throat cancer is tonsil cancer that affects the tonsils, which are located in the back of the throat.
Types of throat cancer
Despite the development and growth of abnormal cells in all throat cancers, your doctor must identify your specific type to determine the most effective treatment plan.
There are two main types of throat cancer:
- Squamous cell carcinoma: This type of throat cancer affects the flattened cells of the throat. It is the most common throat cancer in the United States.
- Adenocarcinoma: This type of throat cancer affects the cells of the glands and is very rare.
There are two types of throat cancer:
1. Pharyngeal cancer: This cancer develops in the pharynx, a hollow tube that runs from the back of the nose to the windpipe.
- Nasopharynx cancer (upper part of the throat)
- Oropharynx cancer (middle part of the throat)
- Hypopharynx cancer (bottom part of the throat)
2. Laryngeal cancer: This cancer forms in the larynx, which is your larynx. Despite the development and growth of abnormal cells in all throat cancers, your doctor must identify your specific type to determine the most effective treatment plan.
Causes of throat cancer
It is a general term for cancer that develops in the throat (pharyngeal cancer) or the larynx (laryngeal cancer). The throat and larynx are closely connected, the larynx is below the throat. Although most throat cancers have the same type of cells, specific terms are used to distinguish the part of the throat where cancer started.
Nasopharyngeal cancer begins in the nasopharynx, the part of the throat behind the nose. Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the oropharynx, the part of the throat that supports the tonsils behind the mouth. Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer) begins in the hypopharynx, the lower part of the throat, above the esophagus and trachea.
Glottic cancer begins in the vocal cords. Supraglottic cancer begins in the upper part of the larynx and involves cancer that affects the epiglottis, a piece of cartilage that prevents food from entering the trachea. Subglottic cancer begins in the lower part of the larynx, just below the vocal cords.
Symptoms & signs of throat cancer
The three main types of throat cancer (laryngeal, hypopharyngeal, and oropharyngeal) include oral cancer and share many common symptoms. Signs of this disease are first treated by a dentist or doctor for another disease or condition.
Common symptoms of this disease are:
- Persistent cough
- Difficulty swallowing
- A lump in the mouth, throat, or neck
- Blur or other voice changes
- Ear or jaw pain
- White patches on the mouth or throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Unexplained weight loss
- Swelling of the eyes, jaw, throat, or neck.
- Bleeding in the mouth or nose
For example, voice changes can be a sign of laryngeal cancer but rarely indicate pharyngeal cancer.
Avoiding major risk factors, such as smoking, can help prevent the disease. These changes can be made in your life to prevent this:
- Give up smoking
If a person does not smoke, their risk of infection is already very low. People who have smoked for a long time should stop smoking, as tobacco is the biggest risk factor for this disease. The vast majority of people with this disease are smokers or long-term smokers.
- Cut down on alcohol
Alcohol is also a major risk factor for cancer. People who drink more than the recommended amount is at risk for cancer. Alcohol should be stopped or reduced to just 1 drink a day to reduce the risk of this disease.
- Eat healthily
Fresh fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and antioxidants are recommended to stay healthy and reduce the risk of cancer. Lack of vitamins in the body of people who smoke or drink is also a cause of cancer, therefore a healthy diet with proper nutrition can help people reduce the risk of disease.
- Protection against HPV
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most dangerous virus that can cause cancer. The virus is transmitted from skin to skin by contact or by vaginal or anal intercourse. To reduce the risk of getting HPV, doctors recommend limiting the number of sexual partners and using protection during sex. The HPV vaccine can be considered a preventive measure
To diagnose throat cancer disease, your doctor may recommend:
- Using an endoscope to see your throat closely: During a procedure called endoscopy, your doctor may use a special scope (endoscope) to view your throat closely. A small camera at the end of the endoscope transmits images to a video screen that your doctor watches for signs of throat abnormalities.
- You can add another type of endoscope (laryngoscope) to your larynx: You use a magnifying glass to help your doctor examine your vocal cords. This procedure is called a laryngoscopy.
- Extraction of the tissue sample for analysis: If abnormalities are found during endoscopy or laryngoscopy, your doctor may send surgical instruments through an endoscope to collect a tissue sample (biopsy). Your doctor may also order a sample of the swollen lymph node using a technique called fine-needle aspiration.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests, including x-rays, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET), can help your doctor determine the extent of your cancer beyond the surface of the throat or larynx.
Throat cancer treatment
- Surgery to remove cancer.
- Radiation therapy will use high-energy rays,
- Chemotherapy with drugs that kill cancer cells.
The treatment or combination of treatments you receive depends on the stage of cancer. If cancer has started in the hypopharynx, the larynx or oropharynx may also be affected. Sometimes radiation or chemotherapy is given after surgery to reduce the chances that cancer will come back.
Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are common procedures for oropharyngeal cancer. MSK offers unique treatment options for oropharyngeal cancer associated with HPV infection