An Overview of Throat Cancer

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Throat cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the pharynx (throat).

There are several types of throat cancer, including nasopharyngeal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, and pharyngeal cancer.

Symptoms

Symptoms may vary based on tumor location and type. Many of the symptoms can be easy to ignore, especially if they aren't causing severe distress. But it's important to get medical attention if you develop any bothersome symptoms affecting your mouth or throat.

Common symptoms of throat cancer:

  • Persistent cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Persistent hoarseness of the voice or having to clear the throat frequently
  • Sore throat
  • Bloody sputum
  • Lump in the throat
  • Change in the sound of your voice
  • Abnormal breathing sounds
  • Lumps on the neck

Symptoms may come and go. Persistent doesn't always mean constant. For example, you may have a sore throat for a week that goes away for a few days and then returns. If you experience intermittent or constant symptoms for two weeks or longer, you should make an appointment to see a healthcare professional. A delay in your diagnosis may affect your treatment outcome.

Causes

Throat cancer causes and risk factors
Illustration by Nusha Ashjaee, Verywell

Smoking is a well-known cause of throat cancer. Smoking exposes your body to carcinogens, which are chemicals that cause cells in the body to become cancerous.

Researchers have also identified several risk factors that can increase the risk of cancer, especially among people who smoke. Some of these factors can independently cause throat cancer, and can also work as co-carcinogens—which means that they amplify the ability of carcinogens (like tobacco) to cause cancer. For example, alcohol enhances the ability of tobacco to cause cancer.

Risk factors and causes of throat cancer include:

  • Alcohol consumption
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) via unprotected oral sex
  • Immunodeficiencies
  • Dietary exposures
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Occupational exposure
  • Diet
  • Radiation
  • Betel nut chewing
  • Mouthwash
  • Genetic predisposition

Diagnosis

A throat cancer diagnosis may be prompted by the symptoms. At your medical appointment, your doctor will review your health history to determine whether you may be at risk for throat cancer. If you are a smoker, or if you drink alcohol, or if you have any other habits that may be unfavorable to your health, it's important to let them know.

During your physical exam, your doctor will feel your throat area for any lumps or other abnormalities. If you have signs of throat cancer, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist, also called an ENT specialist. This type of doctor specializes in conditions that are related to the ears, nose, and throat.

Diagnostic Procedures and Staging

Your ENT may examine you with a laryngoscopy. During this procedure, a thin, fiber-optic scope is fed down the throat, so your doctor can see the back of your throat, larynx, and vocal cords.

During a laryngoscopy, a sample of tissue may be taken if any suspicious areas are discovered. This is called a biopsy and it can be examined with a microscope to determine whether there are cancer cells in the sample.

If cancer is found, it is necessary to determine whether it has spread to nearby tissues or organs. This process is called staging. The stage of throat cancer will affect which treatment method will be recommended for you.

Treatment

Several factors are taken into consideration when a treatment plan is developed for throat cancer.

Factors that guide treatment include:

  • Age and overall general health
  • Type and location of the cancer
  • Whether or not the cancer has spread

Surgery and radiation therapy are standard methods of treatment for throat cancer. Surgical removal is often done in all stages of this condition, and can sometimes cure early-stage throat cancer. Surgery can involve laser therapy to remove cancerous tissue, or it may be invasive and extensive. 

Radiation therapy is a primary treatment, and it's sometimes used after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells or to remove cancerous tissue that could not be removed during surgery.

Some people who have throat cancer may undergo chemotherapy to treat the disease. It is normally prescribed in conjunction with other treatment methods, like surgery and/or radiation therapy, as neoadjuvant or adjuvant therapy. 

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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