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
- 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
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
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
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:
Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
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