Get Answers to Your Throat Cancer Questions

Published October 13th, 2021 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Jacqueline Hensler
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Cancer that develops in the throat or voice box is defined as throat cancer. Throat cancer affects more men than women, and diagnosis occurs primarily if you are over the age of 55. In this article, we will discuss throat cancer symptoms and treatments so that you can better understand the diagnosis and what to expect from treatment. We'll also cover throat cancer prevention strategies in order to reduce the risk of throat cancer in the future.

What is throat cancer?

Throat cancer is a type of cancer of the head and neck that begins in the throat. The throat is made up of different structures, including your mouth, voice box or larynx, vocal cords, windpipe (also called the trachea), and esophagus. Throat cancer forms when cells begin to change within these structures due to carcinogens such as tobacco or alcohol. These throat cancer cells can then invade surrounding tissues and form new cancerous tumors.

What causes throat cancer?

The main causes of throat cancer are tobacco and alcohol use. Other factors for throat cancer causes include:

  • Age – throat cancers are more common in people over 50 years old
  • Human papillomavirus, or HPV – throat cancer is more common in people who have HPV throat infections, a type of throat infection that can be spread through oral sex
  • Environmental factors – throat cancer is more common in people who have been exposed to asbestos or other chemicals

There can be other causes of throat cancers but these are some of the main factors.

What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

There are several different signs of throat cancer to be aware of and symptoms can vary. Throat cancer can be difficult to diagnose and often throat cancer symptoms are dismissed as the common cold. The throat is a high-risk area for developing throat cancer because of all the things it comes in contact with on a day-to-day basis. Symptoms of throat cancers include sore throat, difficulty swallowing which is called dysphagia, hoarseness or loss of voice, coughing, and weight loss.

The most common throat cancer symptom is a persistent sore throat that does not go away, particularly if it's accompanied by ear pain or difficulty swallowing. Other signs include increased mucus production, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and throat pain that worsens when you swallow or speak.

When should I see a doctor?

If you experience any throat cancer symptoms and especially if they are persistent, it's important for you to go to your primary care physician right away. Your symptoms could be the result of an infection or other problem that is not throat cancer, but it's important for you to get checked out by your doctor. Additionally, if you are experiencing throat pain, hoarseness in voice, trouble swallowing, and/or weight loss along with these symptoms make sure to visit a medical professional right away.

How do doctors diagnose throat cancer?

Your doctor may diagnose throat cancer by examining your throat with an endoscope, which is a thin tube with a tiny video camera attached, to look at the inside of your throat. Your doctor may also conduct a biopsy which involves taking a piece of tissue sample from lesions found on your throat. A fine needle aspiration, or FNA, may also be used which involves inserting a thin needle into the throat to take cells for examination. There are also different types of throat cancer and the biopsy will help determine which one. 

These tests are usually enough for doctors to make an accurate diagnosis, but if necessary they can run additional blood or imaging studies that help them determine the stage and grade of the cancer cells in order to create a treatment plan that is best for you.

To determine the stage of throat cancer doctors use a number of imaging tests such as X-ray or MRI. A positron emission tomography, or PET scan, may also be used and this involves injecting a radioactive substance into your vein to view throat cancer cells. CT scans, or computed tomography scans, can also be used to diagnose throat cancer by creating pictures of cells in the body. Lastly, barium swallowing is also used and this involves swallowing a liquid that shows cancer cells on an X-ray.

What are the different types of throat cancers?

Most throat cancer cells are squamous cell carcinomas, which means they are flat cells. There are several different types of throat cancers and doctors name them according to the location they are found in the body. The types are:

  • Tonsillar, or oropharynx throat cancer, is a type of tonsil cancer that develops in the throat area near your tonsils
  • Hypopharynx cancer, also called laryngopharyngeal cancer, is a type of throat cancer that occurs just above your esophagus
  • Nasopharyngeal throat cancer is a type of throat cancer that forms at the back of your throat, near the opening to your nose, and is also known as a cancer that is located at the base of the skull
  • Glottic cancer is when your vocal cords have cancer cells 
  • Supraglottic cancer begins in the throat in the area above your vocal cords
  • Subglottic cancer begins in the throat in the area below your vocal cords

What are the treatments for throat cancer?

The options for throat cancer treatments will depend on a number of factors, including the type and stage of cancer you have. The first step in treatment is removing any visible signs of cancer such as throat tumors, which is called a throat cancer resection. The surgical team may remove parts of the larynx and/or esophagus as well as surrounding throat tissues. This surgery is typically followed up with radiation therapy and chemotherapy treatment to kill any remaining throat cancer cells in the area that cannot be removed with surgery.

Treatment for throat cancer can also include targeted therapies or treatments that target the DNA of throat cancers cells to kill them. These targeted throat cancer treatments block the growth of cancer cells and limit their ability to spread throughout your body.

Can you prevent throat cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, there are many things that can reduce throat cancer risk. Throat cancers can be prevented by not smoking or using smokeless tobacco products such as chewing tobacco and avoiding second-hand smoke. If throat cancer runs in your family, make sure to speak with a doctor about having genetic testing done and finding out if you are at risk.

To reduce your throat cancer risk, you should also avoid alcohol use. Lastly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one of the best ways to reduce your risk in addition to avoiding alcohol and cigarettes. This includes exercising regularly and to prevent throat cancer, doctors recommend limiting your intake of red meat and to choose more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, or poultry instead.

Summary

Throat cancer occurs when the cells in your throat mutate and become cancerous. The two most common causes of this are smoking and drinking alcohol. The main symptoms include throat pain, difficulty in swallowing, and a hoarse voice among other symptoms. If you believe you suffer from the symptoms of throat cancer, we recommend you see your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Doctors have a variety of ways to check if you have throat cancer and these may include an endoscopy or using an endoscope to look at your throat, and taking a biopsy. Other methods for determining the stage of cancer include MRIs, barium swallowing, and a couple of other types of scans. If you do have throat cancer, there are various treatment plans and it usually involves removing any visible tumors and then treating with radiation or chemotherapy. To prevent throat cancer, it is best to quit smoking and avoid alcohol or drink in moderation. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by regulating your diet and exercising also decreases your risk for throat cancer. We hope to have given you all the information you need regarding throat cancer, should you have any further questions please consult a medical professional.

References and Sources:

American Cancer Society – Key Statistics for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers

National Cancer Institute – How can I reduce my risk of developing head and neck cancers?

Memorial Sloan Kettering – Throat Cancer  

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