(Cancer, Throat; Cancer, Oropharyngeal; Oropharyngeal Cancer; Nasopharyngeal Cancer; Cancer, Nasopharyngeal; Epiglottis Cancer; Tonsil Cancer; Soft Palate Cancer)
Throat cancer is the presence of cancer cells or tumor(s) in the throat. The throat is made of a number of structures and the term throat cancer represents all of these cancers including cancer of the:
- Epiglottis—flap in the throat that blocks the airways when you swallow food or drink
- Soft palate—rear section of the roof of the mouth
- Pharynx—tube part of your throat
Cancer occurs when cells in the body divide without control or order. Eventually these uncontrolled cells form a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant growths. These growths can invade nearby tissues including the lymph nodes. Cancer that has invaded the lymph nodes can then spread to other parts of the body.
It is not clear exactly what causes these problems in the cells, but is probably a combination of genetics and environment.
Throat cancer is more common in men, and in people aged 40 years and older. Other factors that may increase your chance of throat cancer include:
- Smoking or use of any tobacco products
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Family history
- Vitamin A deficiency
- Diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Suppressed immune system
Infections caused by certain viruses such as:
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Radiation exposure
- Excess consumption of cured meats or fish
- Marijuana use
- Occupational exposure to certain materials such as in:
- Nickel refining
- Working with textile fibers
Throat cancer may cause:
- Sore throat
- Feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
- Voice changes or hoarseness
- Change in voice quality
- Pain in the head, throat, or neck
- Lump in the neck
- Unexplained weight loss
- Coughing blood
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may feel for any lumps in your neck. You may be referred to an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in head and neck surgery.
Your bodily fluids and tissues may be tested. This can be done with:
Images may be taken to evaluate your throat and surrounding structures. This can be done with:
The physical exam, combined with all of your test results, will help to determine the type and stage of cancer you have. Staging is used to guide your treatment plan. Like other cancers, throat cancer is staged from I-IV. Stage I is a very localized cancer, while stage IV indicates a spread to other parts of the body.
Cancer treatment varies depending on the stage and type of cancer. A combination of therapies may be more effective. For example, surgery may be used in conjunction with chemo- or radiation therapy.
Treatment options for throat cancer include:
Surgery removes the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue, and possibly nearby lymph nodes. In very rare cases, surgery to remove large tumors of the throat may also require removal of tissue for swallowing. As a result, food may enter the windpipe and reach the lungs, which might cause aspiration pneumonia. In this case, a tracheotomy may need to be done. The windpipe will be attached to the skin through a hole in the neck, which is used for breathing.
This is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may be:
- External radiation therapy—radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
- Internal radiation therapy—radioactive materials placed into the throat in or near the cancer cells
This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given in many forms including pill, injection, and/or via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells.
To help reduce your chance of throat cancer:
- Don't smoke or use tobacco products. If you do smoke or use tobacco products, talk to your doctor about how to quit.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation. Moderate alcohol intake is a maximum of 2 drinks per day for men and a maximum of 1 drink per day for women.
- Eat a healthful diet, one that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- See your doctor and dentist regularly for check-ups and cancer screening.
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Forastiere AA. Head and neck cancer: overview of recent developments and future directions. Semin Oncol. 2000 Aug;27(4 Suppl 8):1-4.
Forastiere AA, Trotti A. Radiotherapy and concurrent chemotherapy: a strategy that improves locoregional control and survival in oropharyngeal cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999 91(24):2065-2066.
General information about oropharyngeal cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/patient/oropharyngeal-treatment-pdq. Updated May 20, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.
Head and neck cancer. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115660/Head-and-neck-cancer. Updated March 28, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.
Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/cid/documents/webcontent/003128-pdf.pdf. Updated July 16, 2014. Accessed June 30, 2016.
Last reviewed September 2015 by Mohei Abouzied, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.