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Throat Cancer

What is cancer of the throat?

Cancer of the throat (also called pharyngeal cancer) is a growth of abnormal cells in the throat. The throat is the passageway leading from the mouth and back of the nose to the esophagus (food pipe). This cancer can spread to other areas near the throat and to lymph nodes in the neck. Later it may also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and become life threatening.

How does it occur?

Throat cancer is most common among heavy users of any type of tobacco and people who drink large amounts of alcohol. It is 7 times more common in men than women and generally happens after age 50. It may be more common in men because they use alcohol and tobacco more than women.

What are the symptoms?

At first there may be no symptoms. When there are symptoms they are like the symptoms of respiratory infections such as colds. 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
  • soreness on one side of the throat that does not go away
  • a feeling of something in the throat that does not go away
  • earache
  • a lump in the neck
  • blood in the spit or blood from the nose.

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 symptoms and examine you.

Your provider may use instruments, mirrors, or a lighted viewing tube called an endoscope to get a better look at your throat and the area around it. You may have an exam under general anesthesia to examine the extent of the cancer better and to take a biopsy (a small sample of tissue) from your throat for lab tests.

When cancer is found, you will have other tests, such as:

  • blood tests
  • special X-rays, such as computerized tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • possibly barium swallow X-rays to see how much cancer there is

How is it treated?

Treatment is most successful during the early stages of the disease. Your healthcare provider, ear/nose/throat surgeon, and cancer specialist will determine the treatment based on the following factors:

  • the stage (size and extent) of the tumor
  • the location of the tumor

Possible treatments are radiation therapy, surgery, and chemotherapy. They may be used alone or in combination:

  • Radiation therapy to shrink the tumor. Radiation therapy may be the only treatment, or it may be combined with surgery and chemotherapy.
  • Surgery to remove the tumor. Plastic surgery may also be desirable or necessary if tissue from another part of your body is needed to replace a part of the throat.
  • Chemotherapy with or without radiation treatments and with or without surgery if the tumor is large and has spread. Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to destroy cancer cells and help stop them from spreading.

If cancer of the throat is found at an early stage, these treatments may cure it. In advanced cases, treatment may stop the growth for a while and ease the symptoms.

Your treatment team will discuss the treatment plan with you and your family. Having more than one method of treatment may help save your ability to swallow and speak as normally as possible. Ask your healthcare provider to write down for you the stage of your cancer and the planned treatment.

How long will the effects last?

The effects of cancer of the throat depend on the stage, location, type, and treatment of the tumor.

How can I take care of myself?

  • If radiation therapy is part of your care, see the dentist recommended by your healthcare provider for special care before treatment starts.
  • Eat healthy meals and follow good health practices.
  • As your throat becomes sore from radiation treatments, maintain your weight by eating frequent meals and bland foods. Also use liquid nutrition supplements.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco.
  • Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments recommended by your provider.
  • Ask your provider what side effects you can expect to have from the radiation or chemotherapy. Sometimes the side effects are severe, such as a sore throat and damage to your teeth.
  • If possible, find a support group to help you during your illness and recovery.
  • Maintain a hopeful and positive outlook throughout treatment and recovery.
  • For more information on cancer, contact:

    American Cancer Society, Inc.
    800-ACS-2345 (800-227-2345)

    AMC Cancer Research Center and Foundation

    Cancer Information Service
    800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237)

How can I help prevent cancer of the throat?

  • Do not use any tobacco products.
  • Avoid heavy use of alcohol.

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File canc3545.htm Release 13/2010

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