Medically reviewed by Robert Haddad, MD
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 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.
What are the symptoms of throat cancer?
- A persistent sore throat or cough
- A lump in the neck or throat or nose
- Changes in the voice
- Ear pain
- Trouble swallowing
- Pain or ringing in the ears
- Trouble breathing or speaking
- Unexplained weight loss
- Dull pain behind the breastbone
What are the types of throat cancer?
Laryngeal cancer: The larynx is located between the base of the tongue and the trachea, and helps with breathing, swallowing, and talking.
Nasopharyngeal cancer: The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat located behind the nose. The nostrils lead to the nasopharynx, and there are openings on each side of the nasopharynx that lead to the ears.
Oropharyngeal cancer: The oropharynx is the middle part of the throat that includes the soft palate, the side and back walls of the throat, the tonsils, and the base of the tongue. Risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include heavy alcohol use, smoking or chewing tobacco, and being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).
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 two doses of the HPV vaccine for all boys and girls at ages 11-12; the vaccine can be given as early as age 9. If you wait until they’re older, they may need three doses instead of two. HPV vaccination is also recommended for everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already.
This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated in 2019.