Throat Cancer: Signs and Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments, and More
The throat functions as a passageway for food, liquid, and air. That means the throat serves both the digestive and respiratory systems. While the throat performs important roles in the functioning of our body, it’s not immune to various health problems. One of them is throat cancer, the main subject of this post. Scroll down to learn everything you need to know about throat cancer, especially how to recognize it.
What is Throat Cancer?
Throat cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the pharynx (throat) or voice box (larynx). In most cases, throat cancer starts in the flat cells located in the lining of the throat.
The term throat cancer applies to several types of cancers developing in this specific area. There are different types of throat cancer; they fall into two categories: pharyngeal and laryngeal cancer. More precisely, throat cancers may include:
- Oropharyngeal cancer: cancer starts in the oropharynx (part of the throat behind the mouth that includes tonsils)
- Nasopharyngeal cancer: starts in the nasopharynx (area of the throat behind the nose)
- Glottic cancer: starts in vocal cords
- Subglottic cancer: begins in the lower region of the voice box, below the vocal cords
- Supraglottic cancer: starts in the upper region of the voice box
- Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer): starts in the hypopharynx or laryngopharynx, the lower area of the throat, above the esophagus.
What are the Symptoms of Throat Cancer
The most common signs and symptoms of throat cancer include:
- Painful or sore throat longer than two weeks
- Persistent cough
- Coughing up blood
- Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
- Hoarseness and other changes in the voice e.g. not speaking clearly (lasting more than two weeks)
- Sore or lump in the neck or back of the throat that won’t heal
- Ear pain lasting more than two weeks
- Unintentional weight loss
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling something is stuck in the throat
NOTE: The presence of these symptoms doesn’t automatically indicate you have throat cancer. Make sure to schedule an appointment and see a doctor if these symptoms become persistent.
What Causes Throat Cancer?
Throat cancer is caused by something that induces changes in the DNA of cells in the throat. It’s not clear what causes these changes. Due to the mutations in genetic makeup, the cells grow and divide uncontrollably. They keep multiplying, which results in tumors and cancer.
Further research is necessary to uncover reasons behind mutations in the DNA of cells in the throat, but evidence shows genetics could play a role. Studies reveal that laryngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer could have a genetic component. That means people can inherit specific genes and their mutations from their parents and become susceptible to developing this disease.
However, genetics isn’t the only cause and various factors could predispose a person to throat cancer. In fact, the environment and behavior play the biggest role in the development of this disease.
What are the Risk Factors for Throat Cancer?
Although throat cancer can affect anyone, some people are more susceptible than others. The biggest risk factors for throat cancer are listed below:
- Being male
- Being over the age of 55
- Any form of tobacco use e.g. smoking and chewing
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Viral infections such as HPV (especially strains 16 and 18) and Epstein-Barr virus
- Exposure to toxic substances at the workplace
- Family history of cancer, especially throat cancer
- Having Plummer-Vinson syndrome
- Asian ancestry
- Being African-American
How is Throat Cancer Diagnosed?
Your doctor may recommend several tests to determine the cause of your symptoms and diagnose throat cancer. The process of diagnosing throat cancer may include the following:
- Physical exam: the doctor examines your mouth, throat, and neck to check for abnormalities such as lumps.
- Biopsy: a sample of tissue or cells in the throat is obtained for laboratory analysis.
- Endoscopy: The doctor gets a closer look at the throat by using an endoscope, a special lighted scope with a camera. Another option is to use a laryngoscope, a different kind of scope, and insert it into the voice box. The procedure, called laryngoscopy, offers an opportunity for a doctor to examine vocal cords.
- Imaging tests: provide a detailed insight into abnormalities in tissues and help doctors determine the extent or severity of the cancer. Common imaging tests in the diagnosis of throat cancer include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized tomography (CT), and positron emission tomography (PET).
What are the Stages of Throat Cancer?
In addition to diagnosing throat cancer, the doctor determines its stage. Cancer staging is important for several reasons including identifying the severity or progression of the disease, treatment planning, and forecasting prognosis and chance of recovery. These are the stages of throat cancer:
- Stage 0: also known as carcinoma in situ and refers to the presence of abnormal cells in the lining of the throat, which may have the potential to become cancerous.
- Stage 1: the very early stage of cancer, the tumor is not larger than 2 centimeters (cm) and hasn’t spread to lymph nodes.
- Stage 2: tumor is larger than 2cm, but not bigger than 4cm and hasn’t spread to lymph nodes or other tissues.
- Stage 3: the tumor is larger than 4cm or has spread to lymph nodes on the same side of the neck as the tumor.
- Stage 4: advanced throat cancer that has spread to nearby tissue (the neck, trachea, esophagus, thyroid, mouth, or jaw), one large lymph node, and distant tissues in the body e.g. lungs. Tumor of any size can become advanced (stage 4) when it spreads to other tissues.
How is Throat Cancer Treated?
Treatment for throat cancer depends on the location of the cancer, its severity, and the overall health of each patient. The doctor creates a treatment plan taking into account each case individually.
Various healthcare professionals play a role in the treatment of throat cancer including general practitioners (GP), ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists, oncologists, oral surgeons, dentists, dietitians, anesthesiologists, pathologists, and psychologists (if necessary).
Treatment may include one or several approaches, such as:
- Surgery: the type of surgery depends on location and the stage of the cancer. For small cancers or cancers that haven’t spread to the lymph nodes, the doctor may recommend a minimally invasive surgery through endoscopy. During the procedure, the surgeon may cut off, scrape off, or vaporize cancer. Other options include:
- Cordectomy (removes all or portion of vocal cords)
- Laryngectomy (removes all or portion of the voice box)
- Pharyngectomy (removes a part of the throat)
- Neck dissection (removal of some lymph nodes within the neck)
- Chemotherapy: involves drugs to destroy cancer cells. Sometimes it’s used together with radiation therapy. A combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy increases the effectiveness of both approaches.
- Radiation therapy: destroys cancer cells by exposing them to high-energy beams such as those from X-rays and protons. Radiation therapy could be the only treatment necessary for managing small throat cancers or cancers that haven’t spread to lymph nodes. Doctors may recommend combining radiation therapy with surgery or chemotherapy for treating advanced throat cancers. In most severe cases, when surgery isn’t an option, radiation therapy helps reduce the intensity of symptoms and improves quality of life.
- Immunotherapy: uses medications to improve the immune system’s defenses to fight cancer. Sometimes cancer cells hide from the immune system. The main purpose of immunotherapy is to make sure immunity finds those cells and destroys them.
- Targeted drug therapy: treats throat cancer by addressing specific abnormalities in cancer cells. It uses medications to block those abnormalities and destroy cancerous cells.
Recovery after Treatment and Prognosis for Throat Cancer
Surgery for throat cancer may cause complications such as difficulty talking, chewing, or swallowing, especially solid foods. For that, you may need to work with a physical therapist and speech therapist.
A speech therapist can help you learn different types of speech such as esophageal speech, tracheoesophageal speech, and electrolarynx speech.
When it comes to prognosis for throat cancer, the outlook depends on factors such as:
- The location where the cancer started
- Type of cancer
- Lifestyle factors such as smoking
- Medical history
- Overall health
Early-stage throat cancer is highly curable with radiation or surgery.
How to Prevent Throat Cancer?
There are several things you can do to decrease the risk of throat cancer. These include:
- Avoid tobacco use (both smoking and chewing)
- Reduce or avoid alcohol intake
- Increase physical activity levels and exercise regularly
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Practice safe sex
- Consider HPV vaccine
Treating Throat Cancer at King’s College Hospital Dubai in London
Treatment of throat cancer calls for a multidisciplinary team of world-class specialists, which you can find at King’s College Hospital Dubai in London. World-renowned experts customize treatment plans to the specific needs of each patient and guide them through the entire process. The hospital relies on cutting-edge technology, the most recent advances in medicine, and a supporting setting to provide everything that patients need during their recovery.
Schedule your appointment at King’s College Hospital Dubai if you suspect that you may have throat cancer or you’re diagnosed with this disease and need a well-structured treatment plan.
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