Throat Cancer: Symptoms, Treatment, and Outlook

Medically Reviewed By Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN
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Throat cancer occurs when groups of cells grow uncontrollably in any part of the throat. Treatment for throat cancer can be highly effective with an early diagnosis. Most cancers in the throat are squamous cell carcinomas that start in the lining tissues of the throat. With an early diagnosis and appropriate treatment, throat cancer has a high cure rate.

This article will provide an overview of throat cancer, including early symptoms and risk factors. It will also cover treatment options and outlook, including survival rate statistics.

What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

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

Throat cancer symptoms and warning signs

Early detection of throat cancer is key to successful treatment outcomes. Contact a doctor right away if you experience:

  • voice changes, including becoming more hoarse, rough, or softer
  • sore throat that does not go away
  • pain or burning when swallowing
  • feeling that food is stuck in your throat
  • earache
  • difficulty breathing
  • lump or swelling in the lymph nodes near the neck
  • unexpected weight loss

Learn more about the signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers.

What are the different types of throat cancer?

Older women sitting at kitchen table looking pensive
Nasos Zovoilis/Stocksy United

All throat cancers are types of head and neck cancer. Throat cancer can develop in one or more areas of the throat. Doctors refer to the type of throat cancer by its location.

Pharynx

The pharynx is the tube that runs from the back of the nose to the opening of the windpipe. Types of cancer that can occur in the pharynx include:

  • Oropharyngeal cancer: This is the most common type of pharyngeal cancer. It could affect the:
    • soft palate
    • tonsils
    • side and back walls of the throat
    • back third of the tongue
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer: This is cancer of the area that connects the nose and mouth.
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer: This is cancer of the area where the throat meets the top of the windpipe.

Larynx

The larynx, also known as the voice box, contains the vocal cords. It connects the back of the tongue to the top of the windpipe. Laryngeal cancers are among the most common head and neck cancers.

Cancers that can occur in the larynx include:

  • Supraglottic cancer: This is cancer of the area above the vocal cords. It includes the epiglottis, which is the flap of tissue that closes off the windpipe when you swallow food or water.
  • Glottic cancer: This is cancer of the area that includes the vocal cords.
  • Subglottic cancer: This is cancer of the area that runs from the vocal cords to the top of the windpipe.

Learn how doctors diagnose head and neck cancers here.

What are the causes and risk factors for throat cancer?

All cancers result from a change in the DNA within certain cells. This change causes cells to multiply uncontrollably, resulting in the growth of tumors.

Researchers do not know the exact reasons why throat cancers develop. However, a number of factors increase the risk of developing throat cancer. Not all people with risk factors will get throat cancer.

Smoking and alcohol use

Research shows that smoking and alcohol use are the most common risk factors for all head and neck cancers, including throat cancer. Smokeless tobacco use also increases your risk of throat cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Approximately 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are connected to HPV infection. These cancers are the most common cancer linked to HPV in the United States.

Some types of HPV spread through sexual activity. Using safer sex techniques, such as condoms or dental dams, cannot prevent HPV transmission entirely. However, they can reduce your risk of infection.

Other risk factors

Additional risk factors for throat cancer include:

  • UV light exposure, including both natural sunlight and tanning beds
  • Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection
  • workplace exposure to chemicals and substances, such as wood dust or asbestos
  • male biological sex, which can double the risk
  • age over 50
  • radiation treatments to the head and neck

Learn the stages of head and neck cancers, including throat cancer, here.

What are treatments for throat cancer?

Throat cancer treatment depends on factors including the location and stage of the cancer. Your oncologist and cancer care team will discuss your treatment options in the context of your individual diagnosis and medical history.

Common treatments for throat cancer

Treatment of throat cancer may include:

  • chemotherapy, which are drugs that target fast-growing cells, including cancer cells
  • radiation therapy, which are doses of radiation that target the area of the cancer
  • surgery, to remove tumors and cancerous tissue
  • targeted therapy, which are drugs that target cancer cells and avoid healthy ones
  • immunotherapy, a type of treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells

Managing symptoms and side effects

In addition to symptoms of the disease itself, treatment for throat cancer can cause a range of side effects, some more challenging than others. Before starting any treatment plan, talk with your oncologist about potential adverse effects and options for managing them.

Therapies to manage symptoms, side effects, or other complications may include the following types:

  • Physical therapy: This therapy can improve issues with chewing and swallowing.
  • Speech therapy: This therapy can help with difficulty speaking.
  • Audiology: This therapy focuses on addressing hearing loss that may result from treatment.
  • Dietary counseling: This service provides guidance on nutrition and eating, which can be difficult due to changes in taste and smell or difficulty swallowing.
  • Emotional support: In one study, nearly 1 in 5 people with head and neck cancer experienced depression following their diagnosis of the cancer. Counseling, support groups, and other psychological therapy can help manage the difficult emotions of throat cancer.

Clinical trials

Participating in a clinical trial may give you access to promising new treatments that are still in development. Talk with your oncologist about what options you may have to be part of a clinical trial and whether you might qualify.

Hospice care

In cases in which throat cancer has progressed to an advanced stage, the goal of treatment may shift away from curing the disease and focus the person’s comfort and quality of life. Hospice care involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms while providing psychological, spiritual, and logistical services to support the person’s family.

What is the outlook for throat cancer?

The number of new cases of laryngeal cancer has been declining by about 2–3% each year, and the death rate over the past decade has gone down by the same percentage. Experts attribute these declines in part to lower rates of smoking.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) lists 5-year relative survival rates for throat cancer based on the stage of the cancer.

StageLaryngeal cancerPharyngeal and oral cancer
5-year relative survival rate61%68%
localized (cancer only at original site)78.3%86.3%
regional (spread to nearby lymph nodes)46.2%69%
distant (spread to other areas)33.9%40.4%

A relative survival rate helps give an idea of how long a person with a particular condition might live after receiving a diagnosis compared with those without the condition. For example, if the 5-year relative survival rate is 70%, it means that a person with the condition is 70% as likely to live for 5 years as someone without the condition.

It is important to remember that these figures are estimates. New treatment advances and early diagnosis may provide different outcomes. Your oncologist and cancer care team will discuss your individual diagnosis and treatment plan with you.

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some other questions people often ask about throat cancer. They have been answered by Teresa Hagan Thomas, Ph.D., B.A., R.N.

What is the first sign of throat cancer?

Many patients report changes in their voice and difficulty swallowing as their first clear sign that they need evaluation from a healthcare practitioner. However, not everyone experiences these symptoms, so report any new symptoms to your healthcare team so they can help determine if throat cancer could be the cause.

Is throat cancer curable?

The ability to treat throat cancer depends on its stage at diagnosis. Surgery and radiation may be able to cure the disease in its early stages. More advanced stages are not curable, though patients will continue to receive treatments to manage the cancer and improve their quality of life.

How long can you live with throat cancer?

With timely treatment, a person with throat cancer has a good chance (about 80–90%) of living at least 5–10 years. Throat cancer that is diagnosed at a later stage is harder to treat, and these individuals have a lower chance of living as long. However, each person’s outlook depends on the treatment they receive and how well their cancer responds to treatment.

Summary

Throat cancer can occur in any part of the throat, including the areas of the pharynx and larynx. Symptoms include a change in voice, difficulty swallowing, and a sore throat that does not go away.

The primary risk factors for throat cancer are tobacco and alcohol use. Oropharyngeal cancer is also the most common type of cancer linked to HPV infection.

Early diagnosis can improve the effectiveness of treatment. Contact your doctor right away if you experience symptoms of throat cancer.

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Medical Reviewer: Teresa Hagan Thomas PHD, BA, RN
Last Review Date: 2022 May 26
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