Throat cancer refers to cancer that develops in your throat (pharynx) or voice box (larynx).
Your throat is a muscular tube that begins behind your nose and ends in your neck. Throat cancer most often begins in the flat cells that line the inside of your throat.
Your voice box sits just below your throat and also is susceptible to throat cancer. The voice box is made of cartilage and contains the vocal cords that vibrate to make a sound when you talk.
Types of throat cancer
Throat cancer is a general term that applies to cancer that develops in the throat (pharyngeal cancer) or in the voice box (laryngeal cancer).
Though most throat cancers involve the same types of cells, specific terms are used to differentiate the part of the throat where cancer originated.
- Nasopharyngeal cancer begins in the nasopharynx — the part of your throat just behind your nose.
- Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the oropharynx — the part of your throat right behind your mouth that includes your tonsils.
- Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer) begins in the hypopharynx (laryngopharynx) — the lower part of your throat, just above your esophagus and windpipe.
- Glottic cancer begins in the vocal cords.
- Supraglottic cancer begins in the upper portion of the voice box and includes cancer that affects the epiglottis, which is a piece of cartilage that blocks food from going into your windpipe.
- Subglottic cancer begins in the lower portion of your voice box, below your vocal cords.
Causes and risk factors
Experts do not know exactly what causes throat cancer, but some factors appear to increase the risk.
Alcohol: Consuming more than one drink a day may increase the risk.
Tobacco use: This includes smoking or chewing tobacco and taking snuff.
Poor nutrition: Vitamin deficiencies may play a role.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD): Acid from the stomach leaks back into the food pipe.
Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
HPV infection: This increases the risk of various types of cancer.
Inherited conditions: Fanconi anemia is one example.
Exposure to some chemicals: Substances used in the petroleum and metalworking industries may contribute.
Sex: These cancers traditionally affect around four times as many men as women.
Age: Over 50% of diagnoses occur after the age of 65 years.
Race and ethnicity: It is more common among black Americans and white Americans than in Asian or Hispanic Americans.
Science has not confirmed that all of these factors cause or even increase the risk of throat cancer, but there is evidence that they may do so.
They have found, however, a strong link between smoking and consuming a lot of alcohol.
Signs and symptoms of throat cancer may include:
- A cough
- Changes in your voice, such as hoarseness or not speaking clearly
- Difficulty swallowing
- Ear pain
- A lump or sore that doesn’t heal
- A sore throat
- Weight loss
Treatment will depend on various factors, including:
- the location, stage, and grade of the cancer
- the age and overall health of the individual
- availability and affordability of treatment
- personal preferences
Common treatments include:
Surgery: A surgeon will remove the tumor and other cancerous tissue. This may affect the shape and function of the voice box, the epiglottis, and other structures.
Laser surgery: This may be an option in the early stages.
Radiation therapy: Targeted doses of radiation aim to kill the cancer cells.
Chemotherapy: Drugs aim to target and kill cancer cells.
Targeted therapy: These drugs attack specific cancer cells or proteins that affect cancer growth. This type of treatment aims to reduce the risk of adverse effects by targeting specific cells.
Immunotherapy: This is a new approach that boosts the immune system’s ability to defend the body against cancer.
Doctors often prescribe a combination of therapies. Some treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, may cause unwanted side effects. However, most of these resolve after treatment ends.
People with throat cancer should ask their doctor what to expect and how to manage side effects if they occur.
Some people join a clinical trial. This can give access to new treatments that may not yet be widely available. A clinical trial can only happen if experts have strong evidence that a treatment is likely to be safe. The NCI provides information on what to do if a person would like to try a clinical trial.
Life during treatment
Adverse effects of treatment include:
This is a common side effect. Some tips that may help a person manage fatigue include:
Planning days around how they feel: If the person has more energy in the morning, for example, they can plan to be active at that time and rest later.
Mild exercise: A 15–30-minute outdoor walk can boost a person’s energy levels and sense of well-being.
Some people experience pain during and after treatment. Persistent pain can make it hard to sleep and affect a person’s mood. It may also delay healing.
Pain relief medication, relaxation techniques, and other approaches may help. A doctor can advise on suitable choices.
Some people experience problems with memory and other thought processes during or after cancer treatment.
Actively planning each day and noting important tasks on a calendar may help a person keep track of plans and appointments.
Some cancer treatments can damage the nerves, leading to discomfort, including:
- weakness in some part of the body
Additional complications may include balance problems and constipation.
After treatment for cancer, a person will continue to attend appointments at intervals. The doctor will monitor their progress and check to make sure cancer has not come back.
People who undergo surgery that changes the structure of the mouth and throat may need therapy to help them speak and swallow.
Sometimes people experience depression and anxiety during and after cancer treatment. A doctor can help with this. They may recommend counseling.
It is important to attend all follow-up sessions and to ask the doctor about any symptoms that persist. They may be able to help.
Impact of surgery
Depending on the type and extent of throat cancer, a person may need extensive surgery on the throat, tongue, jaw, and other structures.
Reconstructive surgery may restore the appearance and function of these structures, but there is a risk of complications.
One study found that nearly 1 in 5 people who had treatment for head and neck cancer had depression afterward. The outlook for these people was worse than for those who did not experience depression.
Anyone who has signs of depression, anxiety, or other ongoing symptoms should speak to their doctor, as they may be able to help.
The survival rate depends on the stage of cancer, the type, and where it occurs. Scientists use past statistics to calculate the chances of surviving at least another 5 years after a cancer diagnosis.
Someone with a diagnosis of oropharyngeal cancer will have a 65.3%Trusted Source chance of living at least another 5 years.
Hypopharyngeal cancer is less likely to produce symptoms at an early stage, making it harder to spot. The American Cancer Society notes that the 5-year survival rate is 31% overall. In the early stage, it is 52%, and in the latest stage, it is 19%.
According to the NIC, a person with laryngeal cancer has a 60.3%Trusted Source chance of surviving another 5 years or more after receiving a diagnosis.
However, this depends on the type of cancer and where it starts.
If cancer starts in the supraglottis, above the vocal cords, there is a 60% chance of surviving another 5 years with an early diagnosis, falling to 30% if the person has a late-stage diagnosis.
If it starts in the glottis, the part of the larynx that includes the vocal cords, there is an 83% chance of living another 5 years after an early diagnosis, but a 42% chance with a late diagnosis.
Sometimes cancer goes away with treatment and stays away, but sometimes it comes back. In 2016, researchers trusted Source noted that the chance of laryngeal cancer returning within 3 years of starting treatment was 20.5%.
With advances in treatment and other types of medical progress, the outlook for various types of cancer tends to improve over time.
There are different types of throat cancer, and they have different outlooks. In most cases, an early diagnosis will mean a better chance of survival.
Ways of reducing the risk include:
- avoiding or quitting smoking
- limiting alcohol consumption
- talking to a doctor about HPV vaccination
It is also important to be aware of possible symptoms and to seek help if they arise.