Thumbnail image of: Head and Throat: Illustration

Throat Cancer

What is cancer of the throat?

Throat cancer is a growth of abnormal cells that form tumors in the throat. The throat is the passageway leading from the mouth and back of the nose to the food pipe. This cancer can spread to other areas near the throat, to the lymph nodes in your neck, and then to other parts of your body.

Throat cancer can be life threatening. The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

This type of cancer is also called pharyngeal cancer.

What is the cause?

Throat cancer is usually caused by heavy use of tobacco products or drinking large amounts of alcohol. Throat cancer may also be caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). It is more common in men than women and generally happens after age 50.

What are the symptoms?

At first, there may be no symptoms. When there are symptoms, they are like a cold or the flu. As the cancer worsens, there may be:

  • A change in your voice so that your voice sounds muffled
  • Hoarseness that lasts more than 2 weeks
  • Pain or trouble with swallowing
  • A feeling of something in your throat that does not go away
  • Earache
  • A lump in the neck
  • Coughing up blood
  • Nosebleeds

A large tumor can block the throat, making it hard for you to breathe. Eventually this could cause you to pass out or suffocate.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history, including symptoms and possible risk factors, and you will have a physical exam. You may have tests such as:

  • An exam of your throat with mirrors or a special viewing tube. This exam can be done in your healthcare provider’s office.
  • A laryngoscopy, which is a procedure to look at your larynx and vocal cords with a flexible, lighted tube. You will be given medicine to help you sleep during the procedure.
  • A biopsy of your throat, which may be done during surgery, to take a small sample of tissue for testing

If cancer is found, you may have other tests such as:

  • Blood tests
  • CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the throat
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the throat
  • Barium swallow, which means that you will drink a chalky liquid that shows up on X-rays to find out if there is a blockage in your throat

How is it treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Possible treatments are:

  • Surgery, which removes cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Often, more than 1 type of treatment is used. If cancer of the throat is found at an early stage, these treatments may cure it. You will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with throat cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices. If radiation therapy is part of your care, see the dentist recommended by your healthcare provider for special care before treatment starts.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink liquid food supplements. This will help you avoid losing weight if your throat gets sore during treatment.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you use tobacco, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider if you need help to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider.
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms, or you develop new symptoms.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-02-20
Last reviewed: 2014-06-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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