One of the challenges in medicine is that so many illnesses share the same symptoms. A plain old sore throat or a cough usually aren’t big deals. More often than not, they go away on their own because it’s just a passing virus. But sometimes, they’re symptoms of something more serious, like throat cancer.
Throat cancer refers to a group of cancers that give you a tumor anywhere from your tonsils to your voice box. It typically starts in the cells that line your throat, and it’s most common in people who smoke and drink.
It can be treated in several ways, from surgeries that remove tumors to drugs that destroy them. They key is to start early -- the sooner you catch it, the better your chances of getting cured.
Types of Throat Cancer
The two main types of throat cancer are:
- Nasopharyngeal cancer: upper part of your throat behind the nose
- Oropharyngeal cancer: middle of your throat, behind the mouth, including the base of the tongue, the tonsils, and the soft area behind the roof of your mouth
- Hypopharyngeal cancer: bottom part of your throat, behind the voice box
Types of laryngeal cancer include:
- Glottic cancer: middle part of your voice box, contains the vocal cords
- Subglottic cancer: lower part of your voice box
- Supraglottic cancer: upper part of your voice box (including cancer of the epiglottis, which is like a flexible lid to your windpipe)
What Causes Throat Cancer?
You get throat cancer when some cells in your throat get a change in their genes. Doctors aren’t sure what causes this change, but these things can make it more likely:
- Drinking too much over many years
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a chronic problem where stomach acid flows up into your esophagus
- Gender (men are more likely to get it)
- Human papillomavirus (HPV), a type of virus that most often spreads through oral sex
- Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- Race (African-Americans affected more often than other races)
- Smoking, chewing tobacco
What Are the Symptoms?
You might have:
- Changes to your voice (hoarse or hard to speak clearly)
- Cough, which may produce blood
- Hard time swallowing, feeling like something’s caught in your throat
- Lump or sore that doesn’t go away
- Pain in your ears or neck
- Problems breathing
- Sore throat
- Weight loss for no reason
Call your doctor if you have these symptoms and they don’t get better. But keep in mind, many conditions that aren’t cancer cause these same symptoms.
How Will My Doctor Test for It?
Your doctor will first ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam, feeling for lumps in your throat. You may then get any of these tests:
- Laryngoscopy. Your doctor uses a very thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end (laryngoscope) to look for problems in your throat.
- Biopsy. Your doctor may use surgery, an endoscope, or a needle to take a tissue sample from your throat and have it tested for cancer.
- Imaging. X-ray, CT scan, MRI, and PET scan can show if the cancer has moved beyond your throat to other parts of your body.
How Is It Treated?
Treatment depends on where the cancer started, how advanced it is, and your overall health. In some cases, you may need more than one treatment.
Radiation Therapy. Radiation uses high energy beams from X-rays or other sources to kill cancer cells. For a small tumor that’s caught early, this may be all you need. For later stage cancer, you may need radiation along with another treatment. For example, for a large tumor on the voice box, your doctor may use radiation together with chemotherapy to save your voice box.
Surgery. There are many types of surgery to remove throat tumors. For an early stage tumor on the surface of your throat or vocal cords, your doctor may use an endoscope.
For larger tumors, your doctor may have to remove part of your throat, then rebuild it so you can swallow normally. A tumor on the voice box may mean you need to have part or all of your voice box removed.
If the cancer spreads into your neck, you may have lymph nodes removed, as well.
Chemotherapy. Your doctor uses drugs to kill the cancer cells. It’s sometimes used to shrink a tumor before you have surgery or to kill off any last cancer cells afterward. It can also help make radiation more effective.
Targeted Drug Therapy. For some throat cancers, doctors can use newer drugs that starve the tumor of what it needs to grow.