Throat cancer is one of many cancers that affect the head and neck area, including the nasopharynx, the area of the throat behind the nose; the oropharynx, middle part of the throat; the hypopharynx, the bottom section of the throat; the oral cavity where the tongue sits; and the larynx, the area of the throat used for speaking . While cancers in this region can be painful and complex, the majority of patients, 65-80 percent, survive, according to Robert Haddad, MD.
“Treatment requires a multidisciplinary approach, with a supportive care team including nutritionists, speech language pathologists, oral medicine experts, social workers, psychiatrists, pain management specialists, and others, but head and neck cancer is a highly curable cancer,” says Haddad, who is disease center leader of the Head and Neck Oncology program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center.
Here are a few important facts about throat cancer:
What are the risk factors for throat cancer?
Smoking tobacco, through cigarettes, pipes, or cigars, or chewing tobacco, can increase a person’s risk of getting throat cancer. Excessive alcohol intake is also associated with throat cancer.
Infection with human papilloma virus (HPV) has also been recognized recently as a major cause of oropharynx cancer in the U.S.
Throat cancer generally affects more men than women.
How is throat cancer diagnosed?
Symptoms of throat cancer can include lumps in the neck, a persistent sore throat, coughing, ear pain, unexplained weight loss, or difficulty swallowing or eating.
The most common test for throat cancer is a biopsy, during which the doctor conducts an endoscopy, inserting a thin, tube-like endoscope through the nose or mouth to examine areas of the throat not accessible through a physical exam. The doctor may then remove tissue or lymph node samples to examine under a microscope for evidence of throat cancer.
In many cases, CT scans, MRIs, x-rays, PET scans, bone scan, or barium swallow may also be employed.
How is throat cancer treated?
Treatment for throat cancer depends on the cancer’s stage and the patient’s overall condition. A multi-modality approach is often used with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. The sequence of therapy depends on the location and stage of tumor.
What are the best ways to prevent throat cancer?
To reduce the risk of developing throat cancer, avoid tobacco products and alcohol, and get screened annually by a medical doctor or dentist with a full oral exam, which includes examining the soft tissues of the head and neck and the interior of the mouth. It is also important to get vaccinated against HPV. The Centers for Disease Control recommends girls and young women receive vaccinations ideally by age 11-12, or before the age of 26. For boys and young men, the recommendation is ages 9-21.
Read one patient’s story about being diagnosed and treated for throat cancer.