Types of Throat Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 30, 2022
4 min read

Throat cancer is the term for a group of head and neck cancers that start in different parts of your throat. The type you have is based on where the disease starts and the cancer cells involved.

Most of these cancers are a form of squamous cell carcinoma. That means they start in the squamous cells -- flat, thin cells that line your throat.

Throat cancer includes two main types: pharyngeal and laryngeal.

Pharyngeal cancer starts in your pharynx, the part of your throat that goes from behind your nose to the top of your esophagus.

It includes these subtypes:

  • Hypopharyngeal cancer in the bottom of your throat
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer at the top of your throat, behind your nose
  • Oropharyngeal cancer in the middle of your throat, behind your mouth (this area includes the base of your tongue, the back roof of your mouth, and your tonsils)

Oropharyngeal cancer is the most common subtype of pharyngeal cancer. Hypopharyngeal and nasopharyngeal cancers are rare

Laryngeal cancer is a tumor in your larynx, or voice box. Your larynx holds your vocal cords.

You can get laryngeal cancer in your:

  • Glottis, or the area that contains your vocal cords
  • Supraglottis, the area above your glottis
  • Subglottis, the area below your glottis

Most laryngeal cancers start in the glottis. It’s very rare to get cancer in your supraglottis or subglottis.

Throat cancer is caused by abnormal cells in your throat that start to grow out of control.

A few things can affect your chances of getting throat cancer:

Oropharyngeal cancer may cause things like:

  • Sore throat
  • Hoarse voice
  • Lump in your neck
  • Red or white throat patches
  • Trouble swallowing

With hypopharyngeal cancer, people often notice swelling in their neck. Other symptoms include:

  • Sore throat that lasts for a while
  • Pain from your throat to your ears
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Hoarse voice

Nasopharyngeal cancer may cause signs like:

Laryngeal cancer may have symptoms that are a lot like the other types of throat cancer, such as:

  • Lump in your neck
  • Pain in your ear
  • Hoarse voice or coughing
  • Trouble swallowing

Other medical conditions can cause these symptoms, too, so your doctor will want to rule those out first.

A few tests can tell your doctor if you have throat cancer and give them information about how to treat it:

Biopsy. Your doctor takes a tiny sample of tissue and sends it to a lab to be tested for cancer cells. If you have a swollen lymph node in your neck, your doctor can use a tiny needle to take this sample. This is called a fine needle aspiration biopsy.

Imaging tests. Scans of your neck can show if you have cancer and if it’s spread. These include X-rays; computed tomography (CT), which is a series of X-rays put together to show a more complete picture; magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which uses powerful magnets and radio waves to make detailed images; or positron emission tomography (PET), which uses a form of radioactive sugar that helps your doctor find any problem areas.

Scopes. An endoscope is a long, thin tube with a light and camera at the end. Your doctor puts this into your throat to look for signs of cancer. A laryngoscope is a similar tube that’s put into your voice box.

HPV test. Your doctor will swab your throat to take a sample and look for signs of HPV, or the human papillomavirus.

Genomic test. Your doctor can send a sample of your throat cancer cells for genomic testing to look for any genetic mutations. These results may help your doctor know what treatment might work best for your cancer.

This will be based on the stage of your tumor (how far it has grown or spread), where it is, and the kind of cancer cells you have.

Surgery can be done to remove early stage cancer on the surface of your throat or voice box. For more advanced throat cancers, you may need to remove more tissue, such as your whole voice box, part of your throat, or some of the lymph nodes in your neck.

Radiation can kill off cancer cells. Your doctor can use a machine to beam high-energy radiation at the spot of your cancer.

Chemotherapyis a combination of powerful drugs that kill off cancer cells in your body. You may need this along with radiation.

Targeted therapy uses newer drugs that target specific changes in cancer cells. You may need these along with chemotherapy and radiation.

Throat cancer and its treatments may cause some side effects. Your cancer care team can help you control those and feel better.