Throat Cancer

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What is throat cancer?

Most throat cancers are squamous cell carcinomas that start in the lining tissues of the throat. Cancers can occur in any part of the throat, including the nasopharynx, the area behind the nasal cavity; the oropharynx, the area behind the mouth; and the hypopharynx, where the throat branches into the trachea and esophagus.

Symptoms of throat cancer may include a lump or bump in the throat that does not go away, a sore that will not heal, a persistent sore throat, earache, altered hearing, or difficulty talking or breathing.

When caught early, throat cancer has a high cure rate with appropriate treatment, typically surgery, radiation therapy or a combination. Following treatment, speech therapy can help you relearn how to swallow and talk, if needed.

As throat cancers grow, they can interfere with breathing. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for severe difficulty breathing or for uncontrolled bleeding. It is important to catch throat cancer as soon as possible so that the chances of curing it are increased. Seek prompt medical care if you have symptoms of throat cancer such as a nonhealing lump or sore in the throat, sore throat, ear symptoms, or difficulty talking or breathing, especially if any of these symptoms last more than a week or two.

What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

Symptoms of throat cancer can include nonhealing sores or pain in the throat or ear. They can also include symptoms related to the tumor’s interference with normal throat function.

Common symptoms of throat cancer

Common symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • Cough that gets more severe over time
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)
  • Difficulty breathing or talking
  • Earache
  • Hearing loss
  • Hoarse voice
  • Lump in the throat that does not go away
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Sore that will not heal
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Unexplained weight loss

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, throat cancer can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

What causes throat cancer?

Although the specific cause of throat cancer is not known, several risk factors have been identified, including tobacco use, which is the strongest single risk factor for developing throat cancer, and alcohol use. Infection by human papilloma virus plays an important role in the development of genetic changes that initiate the development of cancer.

What are the risk factors for throat cancer?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing throat cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get throat cancer. Risk factors for throat cancer include:

  • Age over 50 years

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Chewing betel quid (paan), a popular stimulant in Southeast Asia

  • Diets low in vegetables and fruits

  • Drinking mate, a tea-like stimulant popular in South America

  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection

  • Exposure to wood dust, typically in the workplace

  • Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection

  • Male gender

  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome (condition related to chronic low levels of iron in which web-like tissue grows at the top of the esophagus)

  • Smoking or use of other tobacco products

Reducing your risk of throat cancer

You may be able to lower your risk of throat cancer by:

  • Avoiding betel quid (paan)

  • Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits

  • Quitting use of tobacco products, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco

  • Reducing your alcohol intake

  • Using safety precautions when exposed to wood dust

How is throat cancer treated?

Treatment of throat cancer begins with seeking regular medical care throughout your life. Regular medical care allows a health care professional to provide early screening tests that can detect cancer in its most treatable stages. Regular medical care also provides an opportunity for your health care professional to promptly evaluate symptoms and your risks for developing throat cancer.

The goal of throat cancer treatment is to permanently cure the cancer or to bring about a complete remission of the disease. Remission means that there is no longer any sign of the disease in the body, although it may recur or relapse later.

Common treatments for throat cancer

Treatment of throat cancer may include:

  • Chemotherapy to attack cancer cells

  • Participation in a clinical trial that is testing promising new therapies and treatments for throat cancer

  • Radiation therapy to attack cancer cells

  • Surgery to remove the cancer

Other treatments for throat cancer

Other therapies may be added to help with your general state of health and any side effects of treatment:

  • Antinausea medications if nausea occurs

  • Blood cell growth factors to increase the number of white blood cells if these get too low

  • Blood transfusions to temporarily replace blood components, such as red blood cells, that have been reduced or lost

  • Dietary counseling to help maintain strength and nutritional status

  • Pain medications as needed to increase comfort

  • Physical therapy to help with eating, swallowing or talking problems

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with throat cancer and its treatments. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

Hospice care

In cases in which throat cancer has progressed to an advanced stage and has become unresponsive to treatment, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus on measures to keep a person comfortable and maximize the quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological and spiritual support as well as services to support the patient’s family.

What are the potential complications of throat cancer?

Complications of throat cancer can be serious, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you.

Complications of throat cancer include:

  • Adverse effects of throat cancer treatment
  • Airway irritation or obstruction
  • Aspiration pneumonia
  • Change in appearance of face or neck
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hearing loss
  • Recurring cancer after treatment
  • Severe hemorrhage
  • Spread of cancer into nearby structures
  • Spread of cancer to distant areas of the body
  • Spread of cancer to lymph nodes in the neck
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 5
  1. Cancer - throat or larynx. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002037/.
  2. Head and neck cancers. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/head-and-neck.
  3. Siegel R, Naishadham D, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2013. CA Cancer J Clin 2013; 63:11.
  4. Tao Q, Chan AT. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma: molecular pathogenesis and therapeutic developments. Expert Rev Mol Med 2007; 9:1.
  5. Bessell A, Glenny AM, Furness S, et al. Interventions for the treatment of oral and oropharyngeal cancers: surgical treatment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011; :CD006205.Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
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