Female doctor examining her patient.
Throat cancer is a general term which can be used to describe any of the various types of cancer that affect the head, neck, or throat.

What Is Throat Cancer?

Throat cancer is a general term which can be used to describe any of the various types of cancer that affect the head, neck, or throat. This includes cancers of the larynx (voice box), esophagus (gullet), thyroid gland, or pharynx (throat).

The pharynx can be further divided into three parts. The oropharynx is the back of the mouth, base of the tongue, soft palate, and tonsils. The nasopharynx is where the throat connects to the back of the nose. Finally, the hypopharynx is where the larynx and esophagus meet.

There are many different reasons why you could develop throat cancer. It is more common in people aged over 60 years, affects more men than women, and is more likely to affect smokers or people who regularly drink large amounts of alcohol.

If you have a close relative who has been affected by cancer of the throat, head, or neck you may also be at greater risk. Exposure to certain chemicals such as asbestos is another factor which can increase your chances of throat cancer, and an unhealthy diet could also play a role.

Signs and Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Any of the areas listed above may be affected by cancer, and this means that the symptoms of throat cancer can vary depending on exactly where the cancer develops.

The most common symptoms of throat cancer are:

  • Changes in your voice
  • Hoarseness or wheezing
  • A sore throat
  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing
  • Lumps or swellings in your neck
  • The sensation of something being stuck in your throat
  • A persistent cough
  • Bad breath
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unexpected weight loss

In addition to these general symptoms, some types of throat cancer may cause other symptoms which are more specific to the affected part.

  • Esophageal cancer can cause digestive symptoms such as heartburn, chest pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Thyroid cancer may cause hormonal imbalances leading to unusual symptoms such as diarrhea or facial flushing.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer can cause red or white patches inside the throat, jaw pain or stiffness, loose teeth, and mouth ulcers.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer may cause hearing loss or tinnitus, nasal congestion (often one-sided), bloody nasal discharge, and headaches.

Most of the symptoms of throat cancer can also be caused by minor problems, such as bacterial or viral infections. However, if you have symptoms which continue for three weeks or more without getting better, you should ask your physician to run tests to find out if your symptoms could be due to throat cancer.

Throat Cancer Treatment Options

Throat cancer is often detected relatively early. This means that it has more treatment options and a better outlook than some other types of cancer.

Providing your throat cancer is caught in the early stages, you may be offered radiotherapy, surgery, or a combination of the two.

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Radiation Therapy for Throat Cancer

Radiation therapy (or radiotherapy) uses high power radiation to destroy cancerous cells. Treatment with radiation therapy is normally carried out daily, with short bursts of radiation given each time. Treatment may continue for three to seven weeks.

Radiation therapy may cause side effects including:

  • Sore skin
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of taste
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue

In some cases, radiotherapy alone may be enough to get rid of cancerous cells from your throat. However, it may also need to be combined with surgery in order to ensure that no cancerous cells remain.

Surgery for Throat Cancer

In the early stages of throat cancer, a surgical procedure known as endoscopic resection can be used. This is a type of surgery where the top layer of cells is removed from the throat. It is only suitable for cancer which is in a small area and has not spread.

If your cancer is more advanced, you may need to have more drastic surgery to remove part or all of your larynx, esophagus, or thyroid. This could affect your speech, and if your larynx is removed, you will need a stoma.

A stoma is a hole which is made in your neck to help you breathe if you have your larynx removed. This will need special care to keep it clean and free from mucus, and you will also have to find a new way of communicating.

You could be fitted with an implant to help you to regain your speech, or you may need to use an electronic device held up to your neck. These devices translate vibrations from your throat into speech and can help you to communicate if you have a stoma. Some people can learn how to speak using their esophagus, although this requires training from a specialized speech and language therapist and will take both time and patience.

If you have surgery to remove part or all of your larynx, esophagus, or thyroid, you may also need radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of the two.

Chemotherapy for Throat Cancer

Chemotherapy works to destroy cancer cells in a similar way to radiotherapy but using strong medication rather than radiation. Treatment is usually given once every three to four weeks and may go on for up to six months.

The side effects of chemotherapy may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hair loss
  • Sore mouth or mouth ulcers
  • Fatigue

People who are unable to have chemotherapy may be offered a drug called cetuximab, which works in a similar way.

When to See Your Doctor

Many of the signs and symptoms of throat cancer can be mistaken for other conditions and may often be overlooked by patients. However, in order to avoid major surgery and increase your chances of making a full recovery, it is vital that throat cancer is diagnosed early.

If you have any symptoms which have been bothering you for three weeks or more, make an appointment with your doctor. The chances are that your symptoms will not be due to cancer, but if they are then the sooner you know, the better. Once you have a diagnosis you can begin treatment, and starting this early will give you the best possible chance of survival.