Cancer is a class of diseases in which abnormal cells multiply and divide uncontrollably in the body. These abnormal cells form malignant growths called tumors. Throat cancer refers to cancer of the voice box, the vocal cords, and other parts of the throat, such as the tonsils and the oropharynx.
Throat cancer is often grouped into two categories: pharyngeal cancer, which forms in the pharynx (the hollow tube that runs from behind your nose to the top of your windpipe) and laryngeal cancer, which forms in the larynx (your voice box).
Throat cancer is relatively uncommon. According to the National Cancer Institute, estimates approximately 12,360 new cases of laryngeal cancer and 13,510 new cases of pharyngeal cancer in 2012 (NCI, 2012).
Men are more likely to develop throat cancer than women, and the disease is more common in people over the age of 50. Certain lifestyle habits increase the risk of developing cancer of the throat. These include:
- excessive alcohol consumption
- vitamin A deficiency
- exposure to asbestos
- poor dental hygiene
There is also a connection between throat cancer and certain types of human papillomavirus infections (HPV). This is a sexually transmitted virus. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America say HPV infection is a risk factor for both cervical cancers in women and throat cancer (CTCA).
Throat cancer has also been linked to other types of cancers. In fact, some people diagnosed with throat cancer are diagnosed with esophageal, lung, or bladder cancer at the same time. This is typically because cancers often have the same risk factors and/or because cancer that begins in one part of the body can spread throughout the body in time.
It can be difficult to detect throat cancer in its early stages. Common signs and symptoms of throat cancer include:
- a change in your voice
- trouble swallowing
- weight loss
- sore throat
- persistent cough (may cough up blood)
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- ear pain
Make a doctor’s appointment if you experience any of these symptoms and they do not improve over time.
At your appointment, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms such as a sore throat, hoarseness, and persistent cough with no improvement and no other explanation, he or she may suspect throat cancer.
To check for throat cancer, your doctor will perform a laryngoscopy. This procedure gives your doctor a closer view of your throat. After you’re given a local anesthetic, your doctor inserts a long flexible tube down your throat, and uses a light and a mirror to examine your throat. If this test reveals abnormalities, your doctor may take a tissue sample from your throat (biopsy) and test the sample for cancer.
If your doctor finds cancerous cells in your throat, he or she will order additional tests to identify the stage, or the extent, of your cancer.
- Stage 0: The tumor has not invaded tissue beyond your throat.
- Stage I: The tumor is less than 7 cm and limited to your throat.
- Stage II: The tumor is slightly larger than 7 cm, but still limited to your throat.
- Stage III: The tumor has grown and has spread to nearby tissues and organs.
- Stage IV: The tumor has spread to your lymph nodes and distant organs.
Your doctor can use a variety of tests to stage your throat cancer. Imaging tests like a CT scan or an MRI will allow your doctor to take a closer look at the chest, neck and head, giving him or her a better picture of the disease’s progression.
There are different treatment options for throat cancer. The treatment method recommended by your doctor will depend on the extent of your disease, among other factors.
If the tumor in your throat is small, your doctor may surgically remove the tumor. This surgery would be done in the hospital while you are under sedation.
Following the removal of the tumor, your doctor may recommend radiation therapy. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to destroy malignant cancer cells. It would target any cancerous cells left behind by the tumor.
In the case of large tumors and tumors that have spread to the lymph nodes and other organs or tissue, your doctor may recommend radiation, as well as chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a drug that kills and slows the growth of malignant cells.
If diagnosed early, throat cancer has a cure rate of 90 percent. (NIH, 2012) ) Even if the cancer advances into the lymph nodes of the neck, the cure rate is between 50 and 60 percent (NIH, 2012). The National Cancer Institute estimates 3,650 deaths due to laryngeal cancer and 2,330 deaths due to pharyngeal cancer in 2012 (NCI, 2012).
Throat cancer may not be curable once malignant cells spread to parts of the body beyond the neck and head. However, patients can continue treatment to prolong their life and slow the progression of the disease.
Some throat cancer patients require therapy after treatment to relearn how to swallow and speak. In addition, some people with throat cancer experience complications. These may include:
- difficulty swallowing
- disfigurement of the neck or face
- inability to speak
- difficulty breathing
- skin hardening around the neck