Throat Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Throat Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, And Treatment

Throat cancer is a kind of cancer that begins in the throat. The throat (pharynx) represents a tube that runs from the back of the nose to the food pipe (esophagus) and the windpipe (trachea). A throat cancer or laryngeal cancer can be classified depending on the affected area. There are specific terms to differentiate the part of the throat where cancer originated-

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer originates in the nasopharynx, a region of the throat located directly behind the nose.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the oropharynx, the part of the throat located behind the mouth, which includes the tonsils.
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer) is a cancer that begins in the lower part of the throat, just above the esophagus and windpipe.
  • Glottic cancer is a type of malignancy that originates in the vocal cords.
  • Supraglottic cancer originates in the upper portion of the larynx, usually involving the epiglottis, a flap of cartilage that covers the opening of the windpipe to prevent food and liquids from entering the airway.
  • Subglottic cancer is a type of malignancy that originates in the lower part of the larynx, which is situated beneath the vocal cords.

Symptoms of throat cancer

Throat cancer, or cancer of the larynx and pharynx, can present a variety of symptoms. These can include pain in the throat or near the breastbone accompanied by a sore throat and hoarseness that lasts for more than two weeks, difficulty and pain when swallowing, ear pain, a lump in the neck, a cough that does not go away, and coughing up blood-tinted phlegm. Some people may also experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and unexplained weight loss. It is crucial to be aware of these symptoms and seek medical attention if they persist.


Causes and risk factors of throat cancer

Throat cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of cells in the throat, and several potential factors trigger the onset of throat cancer. 

  • Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are two of the most common culprits, as they can damage the throat lining and lead to cancer. 
  • Certain viruses, such as the human papillomavirus or Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), have sometimes been linked to throat cancer. 
  • Family history or genetics plays a significant role in increasing the risk of throat cancer.
  • People with certain occupations, such as miners and painters, may be at higher risk due to environmental exposure to certain chemicals and dust. 
  • Poor oral hygiene and a diet low in fruits and vegetables may also be contributing factors to the development of throat cancer.
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a chronic digestive disorder that occurs when stomach acid or, occasionally, stomach content flows back into the esophagus, can also lead to throat cancer.


Diagnosis of throat cancer

A specialist like an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist or a head and neck surgeon can carry out diagnostic tests for detection. Diagnosis of throat cancer begins with a thorough medical history and physical exam, including a visual and physical examination of the throat. Other tests, such as a biopsy, imaging (CT scan, MRI, PET scan), sputum cytology, and blood tests, may be performed to confirm the diagnosis. 

  • A biopsy is the removal of a small sample of tissue for examination under a microscope and is the only definitive way to diagnose throat cancer. 
  • Imaging scans such as x-ray, ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and positron emission tomography (PET) scans can help detect tumors, determine their size and location, and identify any enlarged lymph nodes in the area. 
  • Sputum cytology is the examination of sputum under a microscope to look for cancer cells. 
  • Blood tests may also be used to check for tumor markers.


Treatment for throat cancer

Cancer treatment relies on the size of cancer, its spread, and the patient's overall health. It may include surgery, radiation therapy (radiotherapy), chemotherapy, or a combination of one or more.


Surgery - Depending on the size of the tumor, surgery may be recommended to have it removed. The type of surgery depends on the cancer location and may involve removing a section of the pharynx or the partial or complete removal of the larynx, thyroid, or tongue.


Radiation therapy (radiotherapy) - Radiation therapy may be used after surgery in some cases, while it may be the principal treatment type in others.


Chemotherapy - In some instances, chemotherapy may be needed along with radiation, mainly if the tumors are large or cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Chemotherapy may also be utilized to shrink tumors before surgery.


Recovery following treatment for throat cancer-

Surgery to treat throat cancer might be associated with some problems, such as:

  • A sore throat
  • Breathing difficulties, which might need a breathing hole (tracheostomy) in the lower neck
  • Problems eating, which might require a feeding tube inserted (known as a nasogastric tube)
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Wounds that will heal in some time

Some people with throat cancer may require therapy after treatment to relearn how to speak. A speech therapist and a physical therapist can assist with this.


Occupational therapists can assist with swallowing difficulty. In some cases, the patient may need reconstructive surgery as well.


Tips to Prevent Throat Cancer


There's no proven way to prevent the occurrence of throat cancer. But its risk can be reduced by observing the following-

  • Stop smoking, or don't start smoking. 
  • Take alcohol only in moderation.
  • Follow healthy diet habits incorporating fruits and vegetables in each meal.
  • Protect yourself from HPV- by limiting the number of sexual partners and using a condom every time while having sex, and getting the HPV vaccine.

Mrs. Mayuri Mathur

Mrs. Mayuri Mathur is a Senior Medical Writer (Patient education and digital) and seasoned content creator with a rich tapestry of expertise spanning over ten years. With a diverse background in content creation, she brings a wealth of experience to the table, from crafting insightful medical articles to developing comprehensive patient education materials, dynamic press releases, and captivating brochures and website content. Throughout her illustrious career, she has demonstrated an exceptional knack for distilling complex medical concepts into easily understandable content, making her a trusted resource for both professionals and lay audiences alike. Her meticulous attention to detail and innate creativity have enabled her to deliver content that not only informs but also engages and inspires. Whether elucidating intricate medical procedures or crafting compelling marketing materials, her versatility and dedication shine through in every project she undertakes. Her passion for writing, coupled with her profound understanding, makes her an invaluable asset to any team or project. In a constantly evolving digital landscape, where effective communication is paramount, Mrs. Mayuri Mathur stands out as a beacon of excellence, consistently delivering top-notch content that resonates with audiences across diverse platforms.

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