What is throat cancer?

Throat cancer refers to cancer that occurs in the throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) or tonsils. When cancer invades in this area it can lead to coughing, a sore throat and voice changes.

If it is not caught early, throat cancer can spread to other parts of the body, making it much more dangerous and hard to treat.

Common related conditions
Oral Cancer

Causes of throat cancer

Throat cancer occurs when cells inside the mouth grow out of control. Cells grow out of control when their DNA develops changes (mutations). These DNA changes allow cells to build up and grow into tumors. The cells that line the surface of the throat, tonsils and voice box are the ones that usually develop these changes and grow into tumors.

Risk factors for throat cancer

Scientists have identified some things that may increase the risk of developing throat cancer. They are:

  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol use
  • HPV
  • Gender — men are five times more likely than women to get throat cancer.
  • Race — African Americans are more likely to get throat cancer than other races.
  • Age — throat cancer is most common in people older than 60.
  • Family history
  • Chemical exposure — being around certain chemicals like nickel, asbestos and sulfuric acid fumes can increase your risk of getting throat cancer.
  • Acid reflux/chronic heartburn — people who suffer from heartburn for many years are at increased risk for throat cancer.

Symptoms of throat cancer

The most common symptom of throat cancer is a cough that won’t go away. Other symptoms include:

  • Voice hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble breathing
  • A lump in the neck
  • Weight loss
  • A sore throat or ear pain that won’t go away

Diagnosis of throat cancer

Early diagnosis of throat cancer is important for successful treatment. Doctors can diagnose throat cancer in various ways. These include:

  • Biopsy
  • Imaging
  • Laryngoscopy/endoscopy
  • Barium swallow — a barium swallow is a series of x-rays of your lower throat and esophagus (the tube from your mouth to your stomach); this study can look at how you swallow and diagnose tumors in the lower throat.

Treatments for throat cancer

Treatment of throat cancer is similar to other kinds of cancer treatment. It usually involves surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy (chemical medicine) to get rid of the cancer. Talk to your doctor about what treatment choice is right for you.

Recovery from throat cancer

Recovery from throat cancer depends on the type of treatment. Your doctor will likely want to follow up with you in the office during and after treatment. There is a chance that throat cancer can come back even though it has been treated. Make sure to attend all your follow-up appointments.

Find a throat cancer specialist nearby

Mercy Health locations that can treat you