Throat cancer is the uncontrolled growth of dangerous cells in parts of the throat. It is the class of diseases in which abnormal cells divide uncontrollably in the throat.
Throat cancer grows in the organs that help you speak, swallow, and breathe. Nearly half of throat cancers occur in the throat itself, the tube that starts behind the nose and ends in your neck.
This is mostly referred to as pharynx, and the rest of the cancers start in the voice box or the larynx.
In both cases, cancerous cells tend to grow quickly. Getting early treatment gives you the best opportunity to beat them and keep a good quality of life.
Throat cancer can equally affect the piece of cartilage (epiglottis) that acts as a lid for the windpipe.
Tonsil cancer, which is another form of throat cancer, affects the tonsils located on the back of the throat.
The signs and symptoms of throat cancer include:
- Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
- Change in your voice
- Weight loss
- A constant need to clear your throat
- Sore throat
- Persistent cough and sometimes you may cough up blood
- Ear pain
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- A lump or sore that does not heal
When you see two or more of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately for an examination.
It is still not clear what primarily causes throat cancer. It normally occurs when normal cells in the throat become abnormal, start multiplying uncontrollably, and continue living after normal cells die.
The outcome of their accumulation in the throat is a lump or swelling in the throat called a tumor.
The point at which the tumor occurs determines the category of the cancer, which may be either pharynx or larynx.
The following are the different types of throat cancers.
Doctors identify the types of throat cancers by where they are:
- Nasopharynx: It is the upper part of the throat behind the nose. Cancer rarely occurs here.
- Oropharynx: This is the part behind the mouth, and it is where cancer mostly likely grows in the back of the tongue, tonsils, or the soft palate.
- Hypopharynx: It is the narrow area behind the voice box where cancer is likely to occur
Cancer may grow in the three parts of the voice box itself:
- Supraglottis: It is the area above the glottis
- Glottis: The area that holds the vocal cords
- Subglottis: The area below the vocal cords and above the windpipe.
The risk factors associated with the cancer of the throat include:
- Consume too much alcohol
- Use tobacco products such as cigarettes, shisha, or chew tobacco
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a common virus sometimes found in saliva
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): It is where acid from the stomach leaks back into the food pipe.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) a sexually transmitted infection
- Inherited or genetic syndromes such as Fanconi anemia
- A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
- Exposure to asbestos
- Poor dental hygiene
The doctor will ask you about the symptoms you experience and your medical history. If you have been experiencing symptoms listed above, the doctor may suspect throat cancer.
To check for throat cancer, the doctor will perform a direct or indirect laryngoscopy. It gives the doctor a closer view of your throat.
If the test reveals abnormalities around your throat, the doctor may take a biopsy from your throat and test the sample for cancer.
The doctor may perform the following biopsies:
- Conventional biopsy: The doctor makes an incision and removes a sample of the throat tissue
- Fine needle aspiration (FNA): For this biopsy, the doctor inserts a thin needle directly into a tumor to remove sample cells.
- Endoscopic biopsy: The doctor uses an endoscope to remove a tissue sample. The endoscope is inserted through an incision, nose, or your mouth.
Other imaging tests that may be performed include X-ray, CT, MRI, or positron emission tomography (PET) scans.
Once the doctor comes across cancerous cells, he or she will conduct further laboratory tests to identify the stage or the extent of cancer. The following stages may be identified:
- Stage 0: The tumor is only on the upper layer of cells of the affected part of the throat
- Stage 1: The tumor is less than 2cm and limited to the point where it started
- Stage 2: The tumor is between 2 and 4cm or may have grown into a nearby area
- Stage 3: The tumor is larger than 4 cm or has grown into other structures in the throat or has spread to one lymph node.
- Stage 4: The tumor has spread to distant organs or lymph nodes.
Treatment of the cancer of throat depends largely on where the cancer is located, the stage of cancer, and the general state of health of the individual receiving treatment.
The most common treatment options for throat cancer are:
- Surgery: It is used to remove the tumor and affected tissue by excising them or cutting them out.
- Radiation therapy: Targeted doses of radiation aim to kill the cancerous cells in the throat
- Chemotherapy: Infusions of drugs target and kill cancer cells in the throat.
Sometimes the doctor may recommend a combination of these treatments to eliminate the tumor and prevent a recurrence.
There is no proven way to prevent throat cancer from occurring. However, to reduce the risk of throat cancer, you can:
- Stop smoking or do not start at all
- Stop drinking alcohol, drink in moderation, or never attempt to drink
- Choose a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables
- Protect yourself from HPV through practicing safe sex and considering HPV vaccination
For more information on diagnosis and/or treatment, speak to a doctor, or get access to a hospital near you through the Uzima Health App.