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Throat Cancer

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, ...

condition

Definition

Throat cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in an abnormal way in the throat.

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.

Throat Cancer

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Causes

The cause of throat cancer is not known.

Risk

Factors that can increase your chance of developing throat cancer include:

  • Age: 40 or older
  • Sex: male
  • Smoking or use of any tobacco products
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Family history
  • Vitamin A deficiency
  • Diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Infections caused by certain viruses such as:
  • Radiation exposure
  • Excess consumption of cured meats or fish
  • Marijuana use
  • Exposure to certain materials such as in:
    • Nickel refining
    • Woodworking
    • Working with textile fibers

Symptoms

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
  • Pain in the head, throat, or neck
  • Lump in the neck
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Coughing blood
diagnosis

Diagnosis

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may feel for any lumps in your neck. You may be referred to an otolaryngologist, a doctor who specializes in head and neck surgery.

Your bodily fluids and tissue may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Fine needle aspiration
  • Incisional biopsy

Your internal structures may need to be viewed and examined. This can be done with:

  • Laryngoscopy
  • Panendoscopy
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
treatment

Treatment

When throat cancer is found, staging tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer.

Surgery

Surgery removes 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. The windpipe will be attached to the skin through a hole in the neck, which is used for breathing.

Radiation Therapy

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/or 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 throat. This combined approach may be better than surgery or radiation alone.

prevention

Prevention

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.
Care for Your Child

If your child has to see a cancer specialist, it's important that they visit a doctor who understands the needs of kids. 

At UVA, our doctors are experts in the special kind of care children need. 

Learn more.

You Should Know

In-Depth Cancer News

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