throat

Throat Cancer Symptoms, Types, Treatment And Prevention

Throat cancer occurs when cancerous tumors develop and spread in your voice box (also known as the larynx), throat (pharynx) or tonsils. Tumors in one or a number of these areas is commonly referred to as throat cancer.

To clearly understand throat cancer it is important to understand the makeup of this portion of the body. The throat is a muscular tube beginning behind your nose and ending in the neck. Below your throat is the voice box and in the back of your throat are your tonsils. It is not uncommon for symptoms of throat cancer to appear in any of these three areas.

Throat Cancer Symptoms

The cancer symptoms you experience will vary by their location within your throat, tonsils or voice box, but it will also depend on how advanced the tumor is and its size. Identifying the symptoms of throat cancer will help you get diagnosed earlier and improve your chances of getting rid of the cancer before it spreads.

Many of these symptoms in the advanced and later stages will persist even after treatment for other illness and diseases that share these symptoms.

Early Symptoms: The early symptoms that may indicate throat cancer are the most important in terms of helping you get an early diagnosis and treatment. Some of the early symptoms include a lump in your neck, trouble breathing, and a persistent cough. You may also notice that your voice has gone hoarse, if it has been hoarse for 3 weeks or longer, see your doctor. Likewise if you have trouble swallowing or you experience a sore throat that lasts for longer than 6 weeks, see your doctor right away.

Throat Cancer Symptoms In Advanced Stage: As the cancer of the throat becomes more advanced the symptoms may increase in severity or last for longer periods of time. In addition to the above symptoms, advanced stage throat cancer symptoms include excessive throat pain that often radiates to the head and ear. If you begin to experience difficulty eating because you can’t swallow, you may have throat cancer. A notable symptom during this stage includes an irritated dry cough that includes bloody sputum with an odor.

Throat Cancer Symptoms In Late Stage: Once the cancer has progressed to later stages the symptoms will become more severe and be accompanied by others such as chronic fatigue, weakness and rapid weight loss for no reason.

Throat cancer symptoms in three types

Glottic throat cancer symptoms will affect your vocal cords, presenting with symptoms that include persistent hoarseness in the early stages. Those with glottis, or vocal cord cancer may experience a compromised airway that makes it difficult to breathe. These symptoms will also include general symptoms associated with the early stages of throat cancer.

Supraglottic throat cancer symptoms will present in the larynx and sometimes in the cartilage of the windpipe. Supraglottic cancer symptoms can include hoarseness in the early stages, but the growth on the vocal cords can also lead to  difficulty swallowing (known as dysphagia), voice disorders or dysfunctions (called dysphonia), neck pain and a chronic dry cough.

Subglottic throat cancer symptoms will affect the lower section of your voice box that is located right below your vocal cords. Some of the subglottic cancer symptoms you may experience include noisy breathing (known as ‘stridor’) caused by tumors growing on the cords as well as dyspnea or difficulty breathing.

Throat Cancer Types

The term ‘throat cancer’ refers to cancers that develop in the general throat area including the voice box, larynx or tonsils. Since these areas are very closely connected and in fact, help perform the same functions within the body some areas may be affected while others are not. The different terms used to describe the different types of throat cancer are intended to describe where the cancer originated as well as the specific locations affected.

Throat-Cancer-Areas

The photo above shows the where the different types of throat cancer are affected

Supraglottic Throat Cancer refers to cancer that begins near the top area of the larynx. This may or may not include epiglottis cancer, which affects the cartilage that prohibits food from entering the windpipe.

Glottic Throat Cancer begins in the vocal cords and the symptoms experienced will be especially painful as tumors grow on the vocal cords.

Subglottic Throat Cancer affects the lower part of your voice box, below the vocal cords. If you have subglottic cancer you may experience symptoms associated with subglottic as well as supraglottic cancer.

Hypopharyngeal Cancer also known as laryngopharyngeal cancer, starts in the lower section of your throat located just above the windpipe and esophagus. It is not uncommon for this type of cancer to spread to the esophagus.

Thyroid Cancer Types

Thyroid cancer affects the glands near the base of the throat, as such there are four different types of cancer that affect the thyroid glands.

  • Papillary thyroid cancer is the most common form of thyroid cancer.
  • Follicular/hurthle cell cancer is the second most common type of cancer, making up about 15% of thyroid cancer cases.
  • Medullary thyroid cancer is less common
  • Anaplastic thyroid cancer is the least common form of thyroid cancer, affecting less than 2% of thyroid cancer patients.

Causes

Because cancer is a complicated illness that many a variety of causes it isn’t clear exactly what causes cancer in the different areas of the throat. However doctors and scientists have been able to point to certain risk factors that increases the likelihood that members of certain populations or those with particular lifestyle habits will suffer from one or more forms of throat cancer.

We do know that a poor diet lacking essential vitamins has been associated with many types of cancer, including throat cancer. This is why those who fall into those risk groups for throat cancer are constantly being encouraged to consume for fruits and vegetables.

Risk Factors

Knowing if you fall into one of the high risk categories for throat cancer can help you take steps to reduce your risk. Throat cancer risk factors include:

  • Smoking increases your risk up to 30 times.
  • HPV has been known to develop into different types of cancers, including throat cancer.
  • Race; Those of African descent are more likely to get throat cancer than Caucasians.
  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) has been associated with throat cancer.
  • Age. Throat cancer usually occurs in individuals between 50 and 75 years of age.
  • Alcohol; Heavy drinkers are twice as likely to suffer from throat cancer, when combined with tobacco use the risk is even greater.
  • Gender; men get diagnosed with throat cancer more than women.
  • Excessive voice use can cause polyps, which can be cancerous.
  • Exposure to toxins you inhale such as asbestos or wood dust can cause throat cancer.

Preparing For Your Appointment

If you have been suffering from any throat cancer symptoms for a significant period of time you will want to make an appoint to speak with your physician. He or she may, after the appointment, refer you to a specialist if your diagnosis has been confirmed. Before your appointment however you will want to be prepared to make sure you are well informed as you proceed.

What you can do

Find out when you make the appointment if you need to follow any instructions before your visit. Do you need to restrict your diet for certain tests? Do you need any documentation of symptoms?

Additionally you will want to take note of your regular medications as well as any changes or stresses that may be contributed to the symptoms you are experiencing. Because this visit may be abbreviated you should bring a list of questions that you want answered so you can get through them all during your visit.

Some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
  • What is likely causing my symptoms or condition?
  • Are there other possible causes for my symptoms or condition?
  • What kinds of tests do I need?
  • What is the best course of action?
  • What are the alternatives to the approach that you’re suggesting?
  • I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
  • Are there any restrictions that I need to follow?
  • Should I see a specialist? What will that cost, and will my insurance cover it?
  • Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you’re prescribing me?
  • Are there brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
  • What will determine whether I should plan for a follow-up visit?
  • What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor may ask:
  • When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
  • Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
  • What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
  • What you can do in the meantime

Tests And Diagnosis

To determine whether or not you are suffering from one of the types of throat cancer your doctor will want to administer several tests to get an accurate diagnosis. Combined with your medical history, symptoms and risk factors, the doctor may perform any of the following procedures:

  • An Endoscopy may be performed where the doctor uses a long scope to look at your throat close up. This scope transfers images to a computer, allowing the doctor to look for lumps and tumors.
  • A Laryngoscope is another type of scope but this one goes into your voice box to get images and allow the doctor a close up image of your voice box.
  • Imaging tests may also be administered to get a good view of any polyps, tumors or other abnormal growths on your throat. These may include: X-rays, PET scans and CTs to determine the size of the growths and therefore the stage of throat cancer you are in.
  • Biopsies are commonly performed in many cancer diagnosis because it allows the doctor to get a sample of the tissue to test for cancer. Typically this isn’t performed unless that doctor has found abnormalities within your throat.

Treatments And Drugs

Treating the various types of throat cancer relies on several different options. A combination of drug therapy and surgery is often used, depending on the stage of the cancer. In the early stages a quick surgery may be the best option, however advanced stages of throat cancer may require both types of treatment plans.

Throat cancer treatments include:

Radiation therapy to directly kill the cancer cells using radiation. This can be internal or external therapy.

Surgery

The type of surgery you need to treat throat cancer will depend on where the cancer is in your throat and how much the cancer has progressed. It will be up to you and your physician to determine which surgery will work best for you.

Surgery for early-stage throat cancer will directly target the area affected by the cancer only. This may include cutting off the cancerous cells, scraping them or laser surgery.

Surgery to remove all or part of the voice box (laryngectomy) may be necessary for small tumors in the throat. This will remove just the portion of your voice box with cancer cells present. If the cancer has progressed you may have to have all of your voice box removed.

Surgery to remove all or part of the throat (pharyngectomy) may be necessary depending on how far the cancer has spread. Part of your throat may be removed and reconstructed to make life easier, but if it has spread your entire throat may have to be removed.

Surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes (neck dissection) is only necessary if the cancer has spread from your throat to your neck. Some or all of your lymph nodes may be removed to test for cancer.

Chemotherapy is a form of drug therapy using a combination of cancer killing drugs. Traditionally combined with radiation therapy to improve the outcome, chemotherapy does have side effects that may require additional drug therapy.

Targeted drug therapy includes using several drugs created for the sole purpose of treating throat cancer. These drugs have been created by exploiting the defects in throat cancer cells. Be sure to ask your doctor about side effects of these cancer drugs.

Rehabilitation after treatment may be required depending on what type of treatment you have undergone. If you have had portions of your throat or voice box removed you may need rehab to address difficulties in swallowing, eating or speaking. There may also be muscle stiffness and pain in the neck after surgery. Your doctor will recommend a post-surgery treatment plan to help you recover as much as possible.

Prevention

Currently there is no guaranteed path to prevent the occurrence of throat cancer. What you can do however is remove yourself from the high risk populations to decrease your risk of throat cancer. An active lifestyle and heavy diet are the first steps you should take to lessen your risk, but you should also be prepared to:

  • Quit smoking
  • Drink no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men.
  • Have safe sex to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV).
  • Get an HPV vaccination
  • Get treatment immediately for GERD
  • Wear protective masks in areas where toxins are present and may be inhaled.

Written By Charles Howard

Charles Stanton Howard, MD, is a specialist in Molecular Pathology from the USA. Dr Howard’s educational background includes a BA with the Highest Distinction from the University of Texas, one of the most highly regarded cancer institutes in the world, as well as an MD gained at the University of Virginia.

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