Throat cancer is a rare form of cancer, and according to the National Cancer Institute, it is one of the rarest.
The problem with the condition is that symptoms of throat cancer are very common symptoms for other diseases, making it difficult to diagnose at the early stages.
For example, common signs and symptoms of throat cancer include trouble swallowing and a change in your voice. When the pain begins, it usually occurs with swallowing, in the same way as with a sore throat.
Throat cancer, or squamous cell carcinomas of the mouth often look like open sores (ulcers), and they can grow into underlying tissues over time. In some cases, a lump in the neck is the first sign of the cancer.
As we know, cancer is a disease that causes abnormal cells to multiply and divide uncontrollably.
The abnormal cells later form tumors, which are essentially malignant growths.
Throat cancer is often also called “cancer of the voice box”. Aside from the voice box, throat cancer can also affect the vocal cords, the tonsils, the oropharynx and other parts of the throat.
There are two categories, symptoms for both are the same. The two categories are pharyngeal cancer, a category that includes the pharynx, and laryngeal cancer, which occupies the larynx.
The first one is more common, with statistics showing that there were 13,510 new cases diagnosed in 2012 and 12,360 new cases of people with laryngeal cancer.
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Types of throat cancer
When we talk about throat cancer, we talk about a genera term that applies to all cancer types developing in the throat or in the voice box.
However, there are many different types of throat cancers. They involve the same types of cells, but there are specific terms that health care experts use to differentiate the part of the throat where the cancer originated.
With that in mind, here are the different types of throat cancer you should know:
- Nasopharyngeal cancer begins in the nasopharynx, or the part of your throat located just behind the nose
- Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the oropharynx, a part of your throat located right behind your mouth. The oropharynx also includes the tonsils
- Glottic cancer is the term used for cancer that begins in the vocal cords
- Subglottic cancer begins in the lower portion of the voice box, just below the vocal cords
- Supraglottic cancer, on the other hand, begins in the upper portion of the larynx and includes cancer affecting the epiglottis. The epiglottis is a piece of cartilage blocking food from going into the windpipe
- Hypopharyngeal cancer begins in the hypopharynx, which is the lower part of the throat, just above the windpipe and the esophagus
As we mentioned previously, the symptoms of throat cancer are very similar to some common illnesses and diseases.
That makes detecting cancer in its early stages difficult and challenging.
Here are some of the common symptoms of throat cancer:
- Changes in the voice, including hoarseness
- Difficulty swallowing
- Sore throat
- Ear pain
- Weight loss
- A common cough that is persistent and sometimes you can cough blood
- A lump that doesn’t heal
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
When to see a doctor
With that being said, there are times when the symptoms are persistent and you need to make an appointment at the doctor’s office.
As mentioned, most symptoms are common for other illnesses, not specific for cancer. If the symptoms do not improve over time, it is time to visit the doctor.
Can you prevent throat cancer?
Understanding the symptoms and diagnosing throat cancer early is key for successful treatment. But you can also try to improve the quality of your life and prevent throat cancer altogether.
Here are some prevention tips and lifestyle habits you can implement
- Stop smoking. If you smoke quit, it is that simple. And if you do not smoke, try to never start at all. Smoking is one of the biggest causes of throat cancer and quitting can be challenging. Consult your doctor for stop-smoking strategies, including nicotine replacement products, medications, and even counseling if needed
- Choose a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are rich in vitamin and antioxidants that reduce the risk of throat cancer. The more colorful you plate is, the better. As a general rule of thumb, carrots, beets, leafy greens, these are the vegetables you want
- Drink alcohol in moderation, or try to avoid at all. If you absolutely must drink alcohol, do it in moderation. For healthy adults, that means one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men up to 65 years of age
- Protect yourself from the HPV virus. You can reduce the risk of human papillomavirus by limiting sexual partners and using a condom every time you have sex. You can also consider the HPV vaccine
How throat cancer affects vocal function
We mentioned at the beginning that throat cancer affects your vocal function. But exactly how?
Let’s explore the subject in depth.
When tumors grow, they encroach on the airway and affect the muscles of the voice box.
These muscles provide protection of the windpipe during swallowing of solid foods, liquid food, and saliva.
When the muscles are interfered with, closure of the larynx is incomplete and can lead to severe coughing or chronic pneumonia in severe cases.
The structure of the voice box provides rigid support for the windpipe to facilitate respiration. Compromising this function will cause shortness of breath.
Last, but not least, the larynx is important in communication. The voice box consists of upper and lower components.
When cancer grows within the upper section of the voice box, it affects the voice in a minor way, but leads to the so called “thick speech” or “hot potato voice change”.
When cancer grows in the lower part of the voice box, causes significant hoarseness as the primary symptom.
Diagnosing throat cancer
During your appointment, the doctor will ask you for your symptoms, but also about your medical history.
The initial exam for throat cancer is laryngoscopy, a procedure that provides the doctor with a closer view of the throat.
Before the procedure, your doctor will give you a local anesthetic, after which he/she will insert a long flexible tube down your throat.
Using a light and a mirror, your doctor will examine your throat and take a sample to test it for cancer.
There are other tests that the doctor might elect to conduct, and those include chest X-ray, CT scan of the chest, MRI of the head or the neck, PET scan, CT scan of head and neck.
Risk factors for throat cancer
According to statistics, men are more likely to develop throat cancer. Other groups that are more likely to develop the disease are people over 50.
However, aside from those two “risk groups”, there are lifestyle habits that vastly increase the risk of developing throat cancer.
The risks include vitamin A deficiency, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, poor dental hygiene, and exposure to asbestos.
We also must point that the Cancer Treatment Centers of America consider there is a link between throat cancer in men and cervical cancer in women and human papillomavirus infections (HPV infections).
Treatment for throat cancer
Throat cancer is a devastating malignancy that accounts for 200,000 deaths per year worldwide. While that is just between two and five percent of all malignancies, it is still important to look at symptoms and treatment.
In the United States alone, statistics show there are more than 12,000 new cases of throat cancer diagnosed every year.
Once they get their diagnosis, patients with throat cancer should decide on their treatment.
There are various options. Which one you will use depends on many factors, but primarily on the location and stage of your cancer, as well as your overall health. Of course, personal preferences comes into play as well.
This therapy uses high-energy beams from sources such as protons and X-rays to deliver radiation to the cancer cells.
Radiation therapy will kill off cancer cells, but it might kill off healthy cells as well. There are two types of radiation therapy. One is external beam radiation, when the large machine is placed outside of your body.
But there is also brachytherapy, or inside therapy, when small radioactive seeds and wires are placed inside your body.
Radiation therapy is good for early stages, but when your cancer is in its later stage, it is usually combined with chemotherapy or surgery.
This type of therapy uses drugs that kill off cancer cells. Often combined with radiation, chemotherapy kills cancer cells, but also healthy cells.
Same as there are different treatment options, there are different surgery options. For example, surgery for early stage throat cancer is one thing, and surgery for later stage is another thing.
For early stage of cancer, a doctor may insert a hollow endoscope into your throat and pass special surgical tools or a laser through the scope in order to scrape off, cut out, or vaporize cancers.
In some cases, when the severity requires it, a doctor may consider it is necessary to remove your entire voice box.
If that is the case, the windpipe is attached to a hole (stoma) in your throat to allow you to breathe.
If the entire larynx is removed, you might have to work with a speech pathologist to learn to speak without your voice box and restore your speech.
Smaller throat cancers require only small parts of the throat to be removed during surgery.
What happens after the treatment?
It is worth noting that treatment for throat cancer can cause complications that may require working with a specialist to regain your ability to function normally. That includes your ability to talk, swallow, and eat solid foods.
Your physician might recommend seeking help for eating difficulties, speech problems, stiffness and pain in your neck, and swallowing difficulties.