What You Need to Know About Throat Cancer

Throat cancers grow in the organs that help you swallow, speak, and breathe

About half of these cancers happen in the throat itself, the tube that starts behind your nose and ends in your neck. It’s also called the "pharynx." The rest start in the voice box, or "larynx."

These diseases tend to grow quickly. That's why getting treated early on gives you the best chance to beat them and keep a good quality of life.

Learn as much as you can so you’ll know what to expect.

Symptoms

You may have:

  • Voice changes like cracking or hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • Sore throat, cough, or earache that won’t go away
  • Headache
  • Neck lump
  • Unexplained weight loss

See your doctor right away if any symptoms last for more than a few weeks.

What Puts You At Risk?

Using tobacco for a long time. Smoking it and chewing it are the biggest risk factors for all head and neck cancers, including throat cancer.

Drinking heavily and regularly. That means more than two drinks of alcohol a day if you're a man or more than one a day if you're a woman.

You drive up your risk even more if you drink and you smoke.

HPV. Human papillomavirus is linked to cancer behind the mouth. It's spread through intimate contact, including oral sex. Recently there's been a rise in this type of throat cancer, especially in young men.

You can help protect your kids from it in the future by having your children get the HPV vaccines. Kids should start the series of shots between 11 and 12 years old.

Other risk factors include:

  • Gender. Men are five times more likely to get it than women.
  • Age. Most people get diagnosed after 65.
  • Race. African-American men are at the biggest risk.
  • Chemical exposure. This includes being around asbestos, nickel, and sulfuric acid fumes.

Different Types

Most types grow in the flat, thin cells that line the throat and voice box.

Doctors identify them by where they are:

  • Nasopharynx. This is the upper part of your throat behind your nose. In the U.S, cancer here is rare.
  • Oropharynx. This part is behind your mouth. Cancer is most likely to grow in the tonsils, the back of the tongue, or the soft palate.
  • Hypopharynx. That's the narrow area behind your voice box.

Cancer can grow in the three parts of the voice box itself:

  • Glottis. This holds your vocal cords.
  • Supraglottis. This is the area above the glottis.
  • Subglottis. This is the area below your vocal cords and above your windpipe.

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Getting a Diagnosis

Your doctor will examine you and ask about your general health, smoking and drinking habits, and sexual history.

He might use devices to get a closer look at your throat.

If the doctor thinks you may have cancer, he’ll order tests and procedures depending on what kind he suspects. Common ones include:

A biopsy collects a tissue sample that gets examined under a microscope to look for cancer cells. It’s the only way to know for sure if a tumor is cancer and what kind it is. The procedure may be done with surgery, fine needles, or an endoscope -- a flexible tube with a camera that’s lowered into the throat through your nose or mouth. A tool on the end will take the biopsy.

Imaging tests can help doctors find a tumor. They can also show how big it is and if it has spread. These include:

If cancer of the oropharynx is found, the sample may be tested for HPV. Usually, someone's health outlook is better if their disease tests positive for this virus rather than being smoking-related cancer.

Stages of Throat Cancer

Each type of this cancer has its own rules for staging, which describes how severe the disease is.

But generally, stages I and II are smaller cancers and remain in one area of the organ.

Stage III diseases may have gone to lymph nodes or other parts of the throat.

And stage IV cancers may have spread to lymph nodes and different parts of the head, neck, or chest. The most serious stage IV cancers have traveled to distant parts of the body like the lungs or liver.

Treatments

Doctors will try to get rid of the tumor, keep the cancer from spreading, and protect your ability to swallow and speak as much as possible.

Your treatment will depend on:

  • The stage of your cancer
  • Where it is
  • Your general health
  • Your preferences

You may have one or more treatments:

Radiation uses high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It’s given outside your body by a machine, or inside by radioactive seeds planted near the cancer. Sometimes radiation is the only treatment needed for early-stage cancers. But it can be used with chemotherapy or surgery to treat later-stage disease.

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Surgery may be done through incisions with a scalpel. It may also be less invasive -- going in through the mouth with a tube called an endoscope, or with lasers or robotic techniques.

Very early cancers can usually be taken out with endoscopes or lasers.

If your cancer is more advanced, parts or all of your larynx or pharynx may need to be removed. This may affect your ability to swallow, breathe, or speak normally.

Doctors may use tissue from another spot in your body to rebuild parts of your throat to help you swallow.

If your voice box is removed, the surgeon will attach your windpipe to an opening in your neck, called a stoma, so you can breathe.

If cancer has spread deep in your neck, your surgeon may do an operation to remove lymph nodes.

Chemotherapy drugs can kill cancer and stop it from spreading. It may be used before surgery to shrink tumors, or after to keep the disease from coming back. Some chemo drugs can make radiation work better.

Targeted therapy drugs can starve cancer cells by blocking substances they need to grow.

Your doctor can prescribe you medication to help you manage pain.

You may have problems during or after your treatment. Specialists can:

  • Show you how to care for your stoma
  • Teach you to speak if you have no voice box
  • Come up with ways to make swallowing or eating easier

Help Your Recovery

Take care of yourself. Your treatment might take a lot out of you. So get enough rest, exercise when you can, and fill your plate with healthy food, like fruits and veggies.

Quit tobacco and limit alcohol. Smoking and drinking can make treatments less effective, and they raise your risk of getting another cancer.

Keep your appointments. Your doctor will follow you closely for the first few years. He’ll look for signs that the cancer has come back.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on February 14, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

MD Anderson Cancer Center: “Throat Cancer Facts."

Mayo Clinic: “Throat Cancer.”

The Cleveland Clinic: “Exploring Options for Head & Neck Cancer.”

Mount Sinai Hospital: “What is Throat Cancer?”

American Society of Clinical Oncologists: “Head and Neck Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Alcohol and Public Health,” “HPV Vaccines: Vaccinating Your Preteen or Teen.”

National Cancer Institute: “Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment,” “Stages of Oropharyngeal Cancer,” “Stages of Laryngeal Cancer.”

American Cancer Society: “Lifestyle changes after laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancer.”

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