(Cancer, Throat; Cancer, Oropharyngeal; Oropharyngeal Cancer; Nasopharyngeal Cancer; Cancer, Nasopharyngeal)En Español (Spanish Version)
Throat cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in an abnormal way in the throat. The throat is the hollow tube that runs from behind the nose and mouth, down the neck, to the opening of the esophagus and windpipe.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case throat cells) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms, called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor usually does not invade or spread.
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These risk factors increase your chance of developing throat cancer. Tell your doctor if you have any of these risk factors:
- Age: 40 or older
- Sex: male
- Smoking or use of any tobacco products (such as chewing, snuffing)
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Family history and genetic predisposition
- Vitamin A deficiency
- Diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Suppressed immune system
Infections caused by certain viruses such as:
- Epstein-Barr virus
- Human papillomavirus
- Radiation exposure
- Excess consumption of cured meats or fish
- Marijuana use
Exposure to certain materials such as in:
- Nickel refining
- Working with textile fibers
If you have any of these symptoms do not assume it is due to throat cancer. These symptoms may be caused by other conditions. Tell your doctor if you have any of these:
- Sore throat
- Feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Difficulty chewing or swallowing
- Difficulty moving the jaw or tongue
- Voice changes or hoarseness
- Change in voice quality; referred to as “hot potato” voice
- Pain in the head, throat, or neck
- Lump in the neck
- Unexplained weight loss
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The doctor may feel for any lumps in the neck. You may be referred to an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in head and neck surgery.
- Laryngoscopy—a thin, lighted tube inserted through the mouth to examine the inside of the throat
- Panendoscopy—extensive exam of the oral cavity, oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, and trachea using a fiberoptic scope
- Fine needle aspiration—use of a thin needle to remove a sample of throat tissue to test for cancer cells
- MRI scan—a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of the inside of the throat
- PET scan—a special scan using radioactive glucose that circulates throughout the body; x-ray is then taken and the radiation shows up, showing cancer cells
- CT scan—a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the throat
- Incisional biopsy—surgical removal of a sample of throat tissue to test for cancer cells
Once throat cancer is found, staging tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer.
This is surgery to remove the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue, and possibly nearby lymph nodes. In very rare cases, surgery to remove large tumors of the throat may also require removal of tissue for swallowing. As a result, food may enter the windpipe and reach the lungs, which might cause pneumonia. In cases when this is a risk, your surgeon may remove the larynx or voice box. She will attach the windpipe to the skin through a hole in the neck, which is used for breathing.
This is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may be:
External radiation therapy—radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
Internal radiation therapy—radioactive materials placed into the throat in or near the cancer cells
This is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given in many forms including pill, injection, and via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells.
Combined Modality Therapy
Often times, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are used together to kill cancer of the larynx and pharynx (throat). This combined approach may be better than surgery or radiation alone.
To reduce your chance of getting throat cancer, take the following steps:
- Don't smoke or use tobacco products. If you do smoke or use tobacco products, get help to quit.
- Drink alcohol only in moderation. Moderate alcohol intake is two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
- Eat a healthful diet, one that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- See your doctor and dentist regularly for check-ups and cancer screening.
BC Cancer Agency
Canadian Cancer Society
Forastiere AA. Head and neck cancer: overview of recent developments and future directions. Semin Oncol. 2000 Aug;27(4 Suppl 8):1-4.
Forastiere AA, Trotti A. Radiotherapy and concurrent chemotherapy: a strategy that improves locoregional control and survival in oropharyngeal cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1999 91(24):2065-2066.
General information about oropharyngeal cancer. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/oropharyngeal/patient. Accessed July 2, 2008.
What are the risk factors for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers? American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_4_2X_What_are_the_risk_factors_for_oral_cavity_and_oropharyngeal_cancer_60.asp?sitearea=. Updated September 28, 2007. Accessed July 2, 2008.
Last reviewed October 2007 by Igor Puzanov, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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