Throat Cancer Basics: Risk Factors and Signs You Should See a Doctor

by | Sep 25, 2023 | Ear, Nose and Throat

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 65,000 people in the U.S. will develop some type of throat cancer this year alone. A small but complicated area of the body, the throat houses a multitude of fundamental systems that can become susceptible to the development of cancerous cells. But as with many forms of cancer, the outlook remains good with early detection. It is essential to learn the signs and risk factors for developing throat cancer, to become an advocate for your own cancer-free future.

The Basics of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is a very specific type of cancer that begins and resides within the head or neck. It can have different names, depending on the area of the body is affected. This cancer affects the organs and areas of your body that help you breathe, swallow, and communicate. As with the majority of other cancer types, the exact cause of throat cancer is unknown. But learning about the risk factors associated with throat cancer, as well as the early warning signs can help prevent and discover any concerns.

Causes and Risk Factors

Throat cancer is caused by cancerous tumors that develop in and spread through the areas of a person’s throat, tonsils, and/or voice box. These cancerous cells are caused by mutations within your healthy cells. Though there can be no level of certainty in determining the exact cause of a person’s diagnosed lung cancer, there are several risk factors that could put you at a higher risk of developing the disease.

People who smoke or chew tobacco are typically the greatest at-risk group for all types of head/neck cancers. Drinking alcohol regularly (or heavily) can also increase a person’s chances, as well as being diagnosed with human papillomavirus (HPV). Other risk factors for throat cancer include gender, age, and race. Men have shown prevalence for this condition and are almost four times as likely to develop it than women. Being over the age of 65, as well as an African-American man, are considered among the top risk factors. People exposed to certain chemicals, like nickel, asbestos, or sulfuric acid, may also be at an increased risk.

Symptoms and Signs

Early symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • An earache, sore throat, or cough that doesn’t go away
  • Difficulties breathing or swallowing
  • Changes in your voice like hoarseness and cracking
  • Lumps in the neck or throat
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Pain in the ear or jaw

As throat cancer spread to other areas of the body and causes more damage, other symptoms may also present themselves.

Throat Cancer: Types, Stages, and Diagnosis

It is important to move quickly when testing for, diagnosing, and treating throat cancer. The type, stage, and other information are vital to fighting against this disease.

Receiving a Diagnosis

Receiving a throat cancer diagnosisAnyone experiencing the above symptoms for more than a week should visit a physician for an exam. For a more thorough exam, your primary physician may refer you to an ENT, or Ears, Nose, and Throat doctor. Your doctor or ENT may use specialized technology to look at the inside of your throat. This specialist may perform physical exams, labs and imaging tests, and even a biopsy- a tissue sample collected through the use of surgical instruments. Imaging tests can include MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), x-rays, CTs (computerized tomography), and PETs (positron emission tomography).  Depending on the location affected, your ENT doctor may also recommend additional types of testing.

Types of Throat Cancer

There are multiple types of throat cancer, characterized and labeled by where cancerous cells have developed and which part of the throat is affectedSquamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of throat cancer and develops in the thin cells that line your throat. Adenocarcinoma develops in your throat’s glandular cells, while sarcoma begins within the cells of your muscles in the neck and is one of the least common types of throat cancer.

The two most commonly-diagnosed throat cancers are found in the pharyngeal and laryngeal regions of the throat. Pharyngeal (pharynx) throat cancers can be found in three areas:

Hypopharynx: This is a small, narrow area behind the voice box.

Oropharynx: This is the area behind your mouth, where cancer grows in the back of the tongue, tonsils, or soft palate.

Nasopharynx: This is the upper area of your throat behind the nose.

Laryngeal (larynx) throat cancers are found in the areas of the voice box, which is comprised of three main regions: the glottis, which houses your vocal cords, the supraglottis found above the glottis, and the subglottis, the area below your vocal cords.

Treatment and Prognosis

Treating throat cancer is largely determined on a patient-by-patient basis, with considerations taken for the type/area of cancer, stage or level of progression, as well as medical history. Some treatment options include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. A strong consideration into the treatment, as well as the prognosis of throat cancer, is the stage of the disease. A stage describes how severe your throat cancer is. The four stages of throat cancer are categorized into the following:

  • Stages 1 and 2: These stages typically describe smaller cancers that are found and restricted to one area.
  • Stage 3: This stage is typically used to describe cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes or other areas of the throat.
  • Stage 4: This stage is typically used to describe cancer that has spread to multiple areas of the throat, head, neck, or chest. It is in this stage that the throat cancer may also spread to the lungs or liver.

It is essential to take control of your health and address any concerns you may have about the health of your mouth and throat. It is also important to seek the guidance of professionals that are trained to help you remain the healthiest you can be. Reach out to your local ENT specialist to learn more about your risk of developing throat cancer, any current signs and symptoms, as well as any other questions and concerns.