Key Points about Throat Cancer 

  • Those who use tobacco products, drink heavily or have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are at an increased risk for developing throat cancer.
  • Diagnosis for throat cancer includes an endoscopy and biopsy of the affected area.
  • Treatment for throat cancer may include a combination of surgery to remove the cancerous cells and any affected areas, plus therapies to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.

Overview

Throat cancer is a type of cancer that affects your throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) or tonsils.

Throat cancer causes 

Cancer occurs when cells start to grow abnormally. These abnormal cells grow more quickly than healthy cells, leading to the formation of a mass. People who smoke or use tobacco are at risk of developing throat cancer. Most throat cancers develop in adults over the age of 50. The human papillomavirus (HPV) infections account for a larger number of oral cancers than in the past. One type of HPV, type 16 or HPV-16, is much more commonly associated with almost all oral cancers.

Throat cancer risk factors

Factors that increase your risk for developing throat cancer include:

  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Not eating enough fruits and vegetables
  • Using tobacco, including smoking or chewing tobacco

Throat cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of throat cancer can include:

  • A lump or sore that won’t heal
  • Changes to your voice, such as hoarseness or difficulty speaking clearly
  • Coughing
  • Pain in your ear
  • Sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Unintentional weight loss

Throat cancer diagnosis

A specialist may recommend one or more of the following tests to diagnose throat cancer:

  • Endoscopy. Your doctor uses a thin, lighted scope – called an endoscope – to closely examine your throat for any abnormalities.
  • Biopsy. Your specialist removes a small tissue sample (biopsy) from your throat.
  • Imaging tests. Your doctor may order imaging tests – such as an X-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET) scan – to closely examine your throat and surrounding areas.

Throat cancer treatment

A specialist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for throat cancer:

  • Surgery. Your specialist may recommend surgery to remove the cancerous cells. Depending on the extent of the cancer and the stage of your throat cancer, surgery may include removing only the cancerous cells, part or all of the voice box, part of the throat and/or cancerous lymph nodes.
  • Chemotherapy. This treatment involves using medications – either oral (by mouth) or intravenous (by vein) – to destroy cancer cells.
  • Targeted drug therapy. This treatment uses certain specialized medications to destroy cancer cells.
  • Rehabilitation. After undergoing treatment for throat cancer, you may need to undergo rehabilitation therapy to help with eating difficulties, swallowing difficulties or speech difficulties.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment.