The term “throat cancer” encompasses cancers that arise in the pharynx, which is the part of the throat at the back of the oral cavity that we normally think of as “the throat” plus the part of the throat which goes up into the nasal cavity, the larynx, which is the voicebox, or the tonsils at the back of the throat. The larynx contains the vocal cords and is made of cartilage, and cancer can develop on the laryngeal cartilage or on the vocal cords themselves. Cancer of the esophagus is not included under the description “throat cancer.”
All cancers are caused by mutations that occur within the body’s own cells. Mutated cells become cancerous and start to grow uncontrollably. Genetics and exposure to toxic chemicals or radiation can make it much more likely for cancer to develop. In the case of throat cancer, the lifestyle choices that most contribute to the development of the cancer are smoking or chewing tobacco and heavy use of alcohol. Other risk factors that can lead to the development of cancer of the throat include infection with a virus called human papilloma virus (HPV), chronically poor dental hygiene and its resulting health problems and asbestos exposure.
Possible symptoms of throat cancer include a sore throat that doesn’t go away, pain in the neck, pain that radiates to the ear, a hoarse voice that doesn’t improve after a couple of weeks, neck swelling, coughing with or without blood, unexplained weight loss, a lump or sore on the neck and difficulty swallowing. Sometimes a tumor may be visible or palpable from the outside of the neck, if it is big enough and in the right location.
Throat cancer is diagnosed by examining the throat with a scope, using medical imaging and taking a biopsy of the cancerous tumor or lesion to examine the cells microscopically. A biopsy can be done to take a sample of the suspected cancer during the endoscopic procedure.
Treatments for throat cancer include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted anti-cancer drugs. If the cancer is detected early, radiation therapy is usually the first line of treatment. Cancer treatments may be used in combination depending on the stage of the cancer, or how much the cancer has spread. Throat cancer that has been detected early has a very good chance of being successfully treated, and the earlier that the cancer is detected, the better the prognosis for the patient.