Cancer is a class of diseases in which abnormal cells multiply and divide uncontrollably in the body. These abnormal cells form malignant growths called tumors. Throat cancer refers to cancer of the voice box, the vocal cords, and other parts of the throat, such as the tonsils and oropharynx.
|Image 1: Throat Cancer|
Throat cancer is often grouped into two categories: pharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer. Pharyngeal cancer forms in the pharynx. This is the hollow tube that runs from behind your nose to the top of your windpipe. Laryngeal cancer forms in the larynx, which is your voice box.
Throat cancer is relatively uncommon when compared to other cancers. The National Cancer Institute estimates 1.1 percent of adults will be diagnosed with pharyngeal cancer within their lifetime. An estimated 0.3 percent of adults will be diagnosed with laryngeal cancer within their lifetime.
Throat cancer is a general term that usually refers to cancer of the pharynx and/or larynx. Regions included when considering throat cancer include the nasopharynx, oropharynx, hypopharynx, glottis, supraglottis and subglottis; about half of throat cancers develop in the larynx and the other half in the pharynx. Consequently, any cancers (growth and/or spread of abnormal cells that form tumors or metastasize) that develop in these regions of the throat are considered throat cancers. For this article, the terms throat cancer and larynx cancer will be interchangeable. The term laryngeal cancer is also used to refer to larynx cancer.
Throat Cancer Symptoms and Signs
Throat cancers may not cause any symptoms if they are very small and have not spread at the time of diagnosis. Sometimes, an area of irritation or discoloration on the lining issues of the throat is the only sign of an abnormality. Depending upon the extent of spread of the cancer, other symptoms can include:
- Hoarseness or other change in the voice
- Difficulty swallowing or the feeling that something is caught in the throat
- Persistent sore throat
- Ear pain
- Lump in the neck
- Breathing problems
- Unexplained weight loss
These symptoms do not always mean you have throat cancer. However, it is important to discuss any symptoms with your doctor, since they may signal other health problems. Research shows that many cancers can be prevented if people applied everything known about cancer prevention to their lives.
What causes throat cancer?
Although it is not clear exactly what causes throat cancers, the cancerous cells develop when genetic mutations allow the cells to grow uncontrollably to form tumors (masses of cancer cells) that may metastasize (spread) to other areas in the body. Some of the factors that can lead to genetic mutations in the cells of the throat include cigarette smoking, infections with the human papillomavirus (HPV), and exposure to toxic substances like asbestos or large quantities of alcohol.
What are the risk factors for throat cancer?
Some of the risk factors for throat cancer are related to lifestyle. For example, individuals can increase the risk of such cancers by smoking or using other tobacco products, chewing betel nuts (a common practice by South Asians), drinking excess alcohol, and consuming insufficient vitamin A. Exposure to asbestos, poor dental hygiene, and especially exposure to HPV are also risk factors.
Throat cancer has also been linked to other types of cancers. In fact, some people diagnosed with throat cancer are diagnosed with esophageal, lung, or bladder cancer at the same time. This is typically because cancers often have the same risk factors, or because cancer that begins in one part of the body can spread throughout the body in time.
Diagnosing throat cancer
At your appointment, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms such as a sore throat, hoarseness, and persistent cough with no improvement and no other explanation, they may suspect throat cancer.
To check for throat cancer, your doctor will perform a direct or an indirect laryngoscopy or will refer you to a specialist for the procedure. A laryngoscopy gives your doctor a closer view of your throat. If this test reveals abnormalities, your doctor may take a tissue sample from your throat (called a biopsy) and test the sample for cancer.
Your doctor may recommend one of the following biopsies:
- Conventional biopsy: Your doctor makes an incision and removes a sample piece of tissue. This type of biopsy is performed in the operating room under general anesthesia.
- Fine needle aspiration (FNA): Your doctor inserts a thin needle directly into a tumor to remove sample cells.
- Endoscopic biopsy: Your doctor inserts a thin, long tube through your mouth, nose, or an incision and removes a tissue sample using an endoscope.