Cancer in throat is when abnormal cells multiply and form tumors in your voice box, vocal cords, and other parts of the throat. There are two main types: pharyngeal and laryngeal.
Pharyngeal cancer is when the cancerous cells start growing in your actual throat, or pharynx, which is the tube that you use to swallow. It can be divided into three sections: nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx. The nasopharynx is the upper section of the throat behind the nose. The oropharynx is the middle section that includes the tonsils, and the majority of the back portion of your tongue. Most instances of this type of cancer are found in the oropharynx. The hypopharynx is the bottom section leading up the larynx.
Laryngeal cancer is located in the larynx, also called the voice box. It is also divided into three parts: the supraglottis, glottis, and subglottis, which are the portions above, in the middle, and below the vocal cords respectively.
The majority of cases deal with cancer cells that affect the flat cells lining the throat, otherwise called squamous cell carcinoma. There are four stages of throat cancer, measuring the size of the tumors and extent that they have grown into nearby organs.
Compared to other types of cancer, cancer in throat is relatively uncommon, and has a high survival rate if diagnosed early. However, if the disease has already progressed past the head and neck area, it may not be curable.
What Causes It?
Throat cancer can be caused by a multitude of factors, the most notable of which being frequent tobacco use, especially combined with alcohol use. Some other possible causes would be poor nutrition or dental hygiene, or inhalation of certain chemicals like nickel, asbestos, or sulfuric acid fumes.
HPV has fairly recently been identified as a root cause as well, making sexual contact a possible method of contracting the disease.
Genetic factors can also contribute to developing cancer in throat. Men are five times more likely to get it, and particularly, African-American men are at the most risk. The majority of people get diagnosed after the age of 65.
Common throat cancer signs to look out for include:
- A change in your voice, or hoarseness
- Dysphagia, or having difficulty swallowing
- A sore throat that won’t go away
- A persistent cough or earache
- A lump in your neck
- A headache
- Unexplained weight loss
It’s important to take these throat cancer signs seriously, and you should definitely see a doctor if they haven’t gone away after a few weeks.
Treatments for your throat cancer is highly dependent on what stage the disease is at, where the tumor is located, your general health, and whatever preferences for treatment that you might have. These treatments are provided to you by health care specialists like medical and radiation oncologists, head/neck and plastic/reconstructive surgeons, speech pathologists, dentists, and several types of therapists.
If your tumor is small enough, it’s usually possible for your doctor to surgically remove it from your throat. This may involve removing all or part of your voice box, vocal cords, or parts of your neck. Radiation therapy will be recommended after any type of cancer surgery.
If the tumor is too large or you can’t tolerate the surgery required, you can also use a combination of chemo and radiation therapy as your primary treatment. Chemotherapy is a drug that is used to either shrink tumors before you undergo surgery or kill any remaining cancer cells after surgery or radiation treatment.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to attack any malignant cancer cells that may exist or be left behind after removing a tumor. There are three types of radiation therapy: brachytherapy, intensity-modulated radiotherapy and 3D-conformal radiation therapy. With both intensity-modulated and 3D-conformal radiation therapy, radiation beams are tailored to the exact shape of your tumor. With brachytherapy, tiny radioactive seeds are placed directly inside or close to the tumor in your body.
Targeted therapy is a more recent form of treatment. It uses drugs to stop or slow down the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules inside the tumor that makes it grow. This is often paired up with either chemotherapy or radiation, and can be administered through an infusion or with a pill.
After treatment, you could have trouble speaking, breathing, or swallowing. You may want to consult with a speech, physical, or occupational therapist in order to solve these issues. If these difficulties are due to a physical change such as disfigurement or skin hardening around the neck due to surgery, you can also discuss the possibility of a reconstructive surgery to remedy this problem.