Throat cancer is a type of cancer that arises in the throat. Most commonly, it develops from the flat cells that are lining the inside of your throat. You can imagine your throat as a muscular tube that contains various organs, such as your tonsils, pharynx, epiglottis, and larynx or voice box. In this article, we will focus on everything you need to know about throat cancer, its risk factors, cause, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
Anatomy of the throat
Your throat is a muscular tube that begins with your tonsils and extends downwards towards your pharynx and larynx. Your larynx is your voice box, where your vocal cords stay. They vibrate and create the sound of your voice. Epiglottis is also part of your throat. Its role is to protect you from swallowing food into your airways and vice versa. Throat cancer can develop in any of these structures. Another part of your throat is the junction between your nasal cavity and pharynx, called the nasopharynx. The oropharynx is where your oral cavity meets your pharynx. Finally, the laryngopharynx is where your larynx meets your pharynx.
How common is throat cancer?
Laryngeal cancer belongs to the head and neck cancers, and it is quite common among this category. It affected an estimated 12,410 adults in 2019 in the US, and it killed about 3,760 individuals. However, the overall decrease in smoking among the population led to a 2% drop in laryngeal cancer prevalence, compared to past years. The average five-year survival rate of laryngeal cancer is 61%. If it’s localized cancer without metastases, the survival rate is about 78%. Generally, as the malignant cells spread, the five-year survival rate drops.
Hypopharyngeal cancer affects an estimated 3,000 people every year. Its five-year survival rate is 33%, but if found and treated early, it is 53%. However, only about 17% of patients with hypopharyngeal cancer will receive early diagnosis and treatment. Half of the individuals with this type of cancer will find it and manage it in the presence of local and distant metastases.
What is the cause of throat cancer?
Scientists do not know what exactly causes throat cancer. They believe that malignant cells are the result of DNA mutations or changes that transform healthy cells into cancerous ones. These cells are growing and dividing very fast and may form a tumor. Although we don’t know what exactly causes throat cancer, we know that certain risk factors raise an individual’s chance to develop it.
Risk factors of throat cancer
Risk factors increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. The following are some of the most well-known risk factors for throat cancer:
- Tobacco use. Smoking and chewing tobacco increase an individual’s risk of developing throat cancer.
- Alcohol. Excessively drinking alcohol raises a person’s chance to develop throat cancer.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that raises a person’s chance to develop throat cancer. Scientists believe that HPV causes about 70% of all oropharyngeal cancers in the US.
- Diet deficient in fiber. Not eating lots of fruits and vegetables puts you at high risk for throat cancer.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a disease that causes regurgitation of the content of the stomach towards the esophagus and pharynx. Having GERD raises your risk for throat cancer.
Symptoms and signs of throat cancer
The earliest sign of throat cancer is a persistent sore throat that doesn’t get better with time. The American Cancer Society suggests that you should consult your doctor if you have a sore throat that lasts for more than two weeks. Generally, the symptoms and signs of throat cancer depend on its progression and location. The following are some of the most well-established symptoms and signs of throat cancer:
- Hoarseness of the voice
- Other voice changes
- Dysphagia or difficulty swallowing
- Pain in the ear or jaw
- A lump in the throat
- A sore that doesn’t heal
- A sore throat
- Bleeding in the nose or mouth
- Swelling in the oral, nasal, or pharyngeal area
- Unexplained weight loss
Types of throat cancer
The following are some of the main types of throat cancer, according to its location:
- Nasopharyngeal cancer
- Oropharyngeal cancer
- Hypopharyngeal cancer
- Glottic cancer
- Supraglottic cancer
- Subglottic cancer
Diagnosis of throat cancer
It is essential to diagnose and treat throat cancer as soon as possible. Before undergoing any procedures, your doctor will take your medical history and perform a physical examination. The most determinant way to diagnose throat cancer is through a biopsy. During this procedure, your doctor removes a sample of the potentially cancerous tissue to review it under the microscope. The two types of biopsy performed are incisional biopsy or fine-needle aspiration. You might also need to undergo some imaging tests to establish any potential spread of the cancerous cells, and to stage cancer. Staging the tumor is essential when choosing the correct treatment. Finally, there are scoping procedures that allow the doctor to view the inside of your throat with a tube. Their role is to help the doctor visualize the tumor. Panendoscopy, laryngoscopy, and pharyngoscopy are the main procedures.
What is the treatment of throat cancer?
Choosing the correct treatment depends on many factors, such as the patient’s age, overall health, type, location, and stage of cancer. The following are the four standard therapeutic interventions for throat cancer:
- Radiation therapy
- Targeted therapy
Keep in mind that each treatment carries some risks and side effects. You might need to talk with your doctor to learn more about each and how to manage them.