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Head & Neck

Throat Cancer

What is Throat Cancer?

Throat cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in an abnormal way in the throat. Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case throat cells) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms, called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body. 

What Causes Throat Cancer?

The exact cause of throat cancer remains unknown. However, many risk factors increase your chance of developing throat cancer. These include age 40 or older, male gender, smoking or use of any tobacco products (such as chewing, snuffing), excessive alcohol consumption, family history and genetic predisposition, vitamin A deficiency, diet low in fruits and vegetables, suppressed immune system, infections caused by certain viruses such as Epstein-Barr virus and/or Human Papillomavirus, radiation exposure, excess consumption of cured meats or fish, and/or exposure to certain materials.

What Symptoms Might I Have If I Had Throat Cancer?

Symptoms commonly associated with throat cancer include sore throat, feeling that something is caught in the throat, difficulty chewing or swallowing, difficulty moving the jaw or tongue, voice changes or hoarseness, change in voice quality referred to as “hot potato” voice, pain in the head/throat/neck, lump in the neck, and/or unexplained weight loss.

How is Throat Cancer Diagnosed?

Our surgeons will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. The doctor may feel for any lumps in the neck. Our surgeons may perform various tests which may include a laryngoscopy (a thin, lighted tube inserted through the mouth to examine the inside of the throat), panendoscopy (extensive exam of the oral cavity, oropharynx, larynx, esophagus, and trachea using a fiberoptic scope), fine needle aspiration (use of a thin needle to remove a sample of throat tissue to test for cancer cells), MRI scan (a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of the inside of the throat), PET scanning (a special scan using radioactive glucose that circulated throughout the body), CT scan (a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the throat), and/or incisional biopsy (surgical removal of a sample of throat tissue to test for cancer cells).

How is Throat Cancer Treated?

Once throat cancer is found, staging tests are done to find out if the cancer has spread. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Surgery can be performed to remove the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue, and possibly nearby lymph nodes. In very rare cases, surgery to remove large tumors of the throat may also require removal of tissue for swallowing. In cases when this is a risk, your surgeon may remove the larynx or voice box. Our surgeons will attach the windpipe to the skin through a hole in the neck, which is used for breathing. In addition, radiation may be used as a means to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may be via external radiation therapy, or internal radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. Often times, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are used together to kill cancer of the larynx and pharynx (throat). This combined approach may be better than surgery or radiation alone. 

What Steps Can I Take To Prevent Throat Cancer?

To reduce your chance of getting throat cancer, don't smoke or use tobacco products. If you do smoke or use tobacco products, get help to quit. Drink alcohol only in moderation. Moderate alcohol intake is two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Eat a healthful diet, one that is low in saturated fat and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. See your doctor and dentist regularly for check-ups and cancer screening.