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Understanding throat cancer

Throat cancer can happen to anyone, but people who smoke and drink alcohol are at especially high risk.

The throat, also called the pharynx, is the passage that leads from the mouth and nose to the esophagus, the tube-like structure that carries food to the stomach. As with many other parts of the body, the throat is vulnerable to cancer.

Where cancer can strike

Cancer can occur in several parts of the throat:

Larynx. Also called the voice box or Adam's apple, the larynx helps you speak and helps protect your airway when you swallow by keeping food out.

Hypopharynx. This is the tissue in the lower part of the throat that surrounds the voice box.

Oropharynx. The middle part of the throat, it includes the back of the mouth, the base of the tongue and the tonsils.

Nasopharynx. This is the upper part of the throat right behind the nose and just above the back of the mouth. The holes in the nose lead into the nasopharynx. The nasopharynx also connects to the ears.

Symptoms of throat cancer may vary depending on where the cancer develops. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), symptoms may include:

  • Hoarseness that lasts more than two weeks.
  • A lasting cough or sore throat.
  • A lump in the neck or mouth.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Trouble breathing or speaking.
  • Pain or ringing in the ears.
  • Hearing loss.
  • A stuffy or bloody nose.
  • Blurred or double vision.
  • Facial pain or numbness.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • A voice change.
  • Frequent headaches.

The risk factors

Anyone can develop cancer of the throat. But some people are more likely to get it than others. According to the ACS, risk factors include:

Smoking. This is the most important risk factor for throat cancer.

Alcohol use. Drinking heavily increases a person's risk of throat cancer. The risk is even higher for people who drink and smoke.

Poor nutrition. The role of nutrition in throat cancer risk isn't clear. However, it may be linked to alcohol use, since heavy drinkers also often have vitamin deficiencies.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. Infection with certain types of HPV can cause cancers, including throat cancer.

Gender. Men are more likely to develop throat cancer than women.

Age. Because throat cancers grow slowly, most people with these cancers are over 65 when the cancer is found.

Race. Throat cancer is more common among African Americans and Caucasians than it is among Asians and Latinos.

Environmental exposures. Breathing in lots of wood dust, paint fumes or asbestos may increase a person's risk.

Genetic syndromes. People with certain syndromes caused by inherited genetic mutations have a very high risk of throat cancer, including cancer of the hypopharynx.

Treating throat cancer

If you have symptoms of throat cancer, see a doctor. He or she will perform tests to see if the problem is really cancer. Treatment will depend on where the cancer is located and how far it has spread.

Frequently, surgery is done to remove the cancer and possibly some of the tissues around it. Radiation or chemotherapy may also be used to help kill cancer cells. The exception is with cancer of the nasopharynx. This area isn't easy to reach, so surgery usually isn't performed. It may, however, be appropriate for a small number of people. Radiation is the primary treatment for cancer in the nasopharynx.

All the treatments for throat cancer carry a risk of side effects. Your doctor can help you choose the best treatment for you.

reviewed 12/20/2019

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