What is it?
Throat cancer refers to cancerous tumors that develop in your throat (pharynx) or voice box (larynx).
Your throat is a 5-inch-long muscular tube that begins behind your nose and ends in your neck. Your voice box sits just below your throat and is also susceptible to throat cancer. The voice box is made of cartilage and contains the vocal cords that vibrate to make sound when you talk. Throat cancer can also affect the piece of cartilage (epiglottis) that acts as a lid for your windpipe.
Signs and symptoms of throat cancer may include:
- Changes in your voice, such as hoarseness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Ear pain
- Lump or sore that doesn't heal
- Sore throat
- Weight loss
Throat cancer occurs when cells in your throat develop genetic mutations. These mutations cause cells to grow uncontrollably and continue living after healthy cells would normally die. The accumulating cells can form a tumor in your throat.
It's not clear what causes the mutation that causes throat cancer. But doctors have identified factors that may increase your risk.
Types of throat cancer
Throat cancer is a general term that applies to cancer that develops in the throat (pharyngeal cancer) or in the voice box (laryngeal cancer). The throat and the voice box are closely connected, with the voice box sitting just below the throat. More specific terms to describe the types of throat cancer include:
- Nasopharyngeal cancer begins in the nasopharynx — the part of your throat just behind your nose.
- Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the oropharynx — the part of your throat that is right behind your mouth.
- Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer) begins in the hypopharynx (laryngopharynx) — the lower part of your throat, just above your esophagus and windpipe.
- Glottic cancer begins in the vocal cords.
- Supraglottic cancer begins in the upper portion of the larynx and includes cancer that affects the epiglottis, which is a piece of cartilage that blocks food from going into your windpipe.
- Subglottic cancer begins in the lower portion of your voice box, below your vocal cords.
Factors that can increase your risk of throat cancer include:
- Tobacco use, including smoking and chewing tobacco
- Excessive alcohol use
- Poor dental hygiene
- A sexually transmitted virus called human papillomavirus (HPV)
- A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
- Exposure to asbestos, a naturally occurring fiber that's used in certain manufacturing industries
Treatment for throat cancer often causes complications that may require working with specialists to regain the ability to swallow, eat solid foods and talk. During and after throat cancer treatment, your doctor may have you seek help for:
- Caring for a surgical opening in your throat (stoma) if you had a tracheotomy
- Difficulty eating
- Difficulty swallowing
- Stiffness and pain in your neck
- Speech problems
Your doctor can discuss the potential side effects and complications of your treatments with you.
In order to diagnose throat cancer, your doctor may recommend:
- Using a scope to get a closer look at your throat. Your doctor may use a special lighted scope (endoscope) to get a close look at your throat during a procedure called endoscopy. A tiny camera at the end of the endoscope transmits images to a video screen that your doctor watches for signs of abnormalities in your throat. Another type of scope (laryngoscope) can be inserted in your voice box. It uses a magnifying lens to help your doctor examine your vocal cords. This procedure is called laryngoscopy.
- Removing a tissue sample for testing. If abnormalities are found during endoscopy or laryngoscopy, your doctor can pass surgical instruments through the scope to collect a tissue sample (biopsy). The sample is sent to a laboratory for testing.
- Imaging tests. Imaging tests, including X-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), may help your doctor determine the extent of your cancer beyond the surface of your throat or voice box.
Once throat cancer is diagnosed, the next step is to determine the extent, or stage, of the cancer. Knowing the stage helps determine your treatment options.
The stage of throat cancer is characterized with the Roman numerals I through IV. Each subtype of throat cancer has its own criteria for each stage. In general, stage I throat cancer indicates a smaller tumor confined to one area of the throat. Later stages indicate more advanced cancer, with IV being the most advanced.