Throat Cancer: Signs, Symptoms, and Potential Treatments

Throat Cancer: Signs, Symptoms, and Potential Treatments

Cancer can affect any part of the body, including the throat. This condition can make it painful and more difficult for patients to talk, swallow and even breathe. While the throat is a seemingly small part of the body, there can be devastating effects on a person’s health when it develops cancer.

And unlike other types of cancer, it might take longer to get diagnosed with throat cancer.  The symptoms of this cancer are surprisingly similar to common illnesses. That’s why knowing the risk factors and signs can help you know when it’s time to seek medical attention before it worsens.

Here is some important information to know about throat cancer.

Types of Throat Cancer

Although throat cancer is generalized under one term, there are actually multiple types of cancer that can develop within this area. 

There are two primary types of throat cancer. The first is squamous cell carcinoma, which is the most common in the U.S. and affects the cells lining the throat. The other type is adenocarcinoma, which is more rare and affects the glandular cells.

Within these two types of throat cancer, there are a number of categories a person’s condition could fall under. The two main ones include pharyngeal cancer that develops in the throat, and laryngeal cancer that develops in the voice box. 

There are also a number of cancer terms that differentiate where the condition originated. This means areas like the vocal cords, tonsils upper, middle and bottom of the throat each have their own unique terms specifying exactly which part has cancer.

You can search for helpful diagrams online that label different parts of the throat and the cancer term associated with it.

Signs and Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Despite the various terms and forms of throat cancer, there is a general list of symptoms that can appear in any type of this disease. Throat cancer can be hard to diagnose in its early stages because people might assume the symptoms they’re experiencing are related to other common illnesses.

The symptoms of throat cancer are

  • Cracking, hoarseness or other voice changes
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Sore throat, cough or earache that won’t go away
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
  • Wheezing
  • Unexplained weight loss

It’s possible, and more likely, that a person with these symptoms does not have throat cancer. But if the symptoms don’t go away after a few weeks on their own, you should see your doctor for an examination.

Causes of Throat Cancer

While there is no certain answer about what exactly causes the uncontrollable growth of cancer cells, there are risk factors that have been linked to people that have been diagnosed with throat cancer.

In general, men are five times more likely to develop this condition than women (and African-American men are most at risk). But unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and poor nutrition increase the chances of anyone developing throat cancer. Poor dental hygiene is another known link.

Exposure to chemicals commonly found in certain workplace are also known risks. This includes asbestos, nickel, sulfuric acid fumes and other similar toxins. There are also genetics and certain viruses like HPV that can increase a person’s chances of throat cancer.

The more you limit yourself to these toxins and become aware of the environment you work at, the better your chances will be at preventing throat cancer.

Common Treatments For Throat Cancer

Before getting treatment, doctors must understand the cancer their patient is dealing with. This will help them decide on the best course of treatment for that particular case.

There are a number of ways doctors will examine the cancer. They’ll do an endoscopy, which is a procedure that uses a special lighted scope to get a closer look at the throat. The tiny camera attached to this device will help doctors find any abnormalities in the throat.

A biopsy might also be done. This involves removing a tissue sample that is sent to a lab for further testing. A patient will also go through a series of image tests that include an MRI, PET scan, x-ray and CT scan. After the tests, the cancer will be graded a stage ranging from one to four (less advanced to more advanced).

After the doctors understand the patient’s condition, they will begin treatment. They will consider the cancer’s stage, location, types of cells and the patient’s overall health when deciding how to proceed.

Here are some forms of treatments that are common for cancer patients.

Radiation Therapy

This treatment involves using high-energy beams that can hopefully shrink and eliminate cancer cells. For throat cancer patients in the earlier stages, this may be the only treatment needed. This is also used on patients with more severe cancer to reduce symptoms and make them more comfortable.


Depending on the location and stage of throat cancer, doctors might be able to perform certain types of surgery. 

A doctor could use an endoscopy to scrape, cut or vaporize cancer cells away for patients in earlier stages. Patients with laryngeal throat cancer may get part of their voice box partially or entirely removed.

Another type of surgery could have doctors removing part of the patient’s throat. Doctors can reconstruct those parts so the person can swallow food normally. Surgery might also remove cancerous lymph nodes, known as a neck dissection, if the disease has spread deep within the neck.


Usually done in collaboration with radiation therapy, chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. This type of treatment can make cancer cells more vulnerable to radiation, but can worsen side effects. Some drug therapies involve using medicine that takes advantage of defects in cancer cells.

Treatment for any type of cancer can be a grueling experience on the body. Rehabilitation can help patients regain their ability to drink, eat and talk if intensive measures were taken. If treatments don’t work and the cancer continues to progress, palliative care might be suggested to make the patient more comfortable.

Throat Cancer Is Rare, But Still Possible To Develop

Throat cancer is a condition that affects a person’s ability to swallow, speak and breath. The good news is this form of cancer is quite uncommon compared to other types. About 1.5 percent of patients will be diagnosed with some form of throat cancer, making it an unlikely condition to develop.

You can lower your chances of developing throat cancer by understanding the risk factors. Controlling your alcohol consumption, quitting smoking and protecting yourself from environmental toxins are things within your control that can help prevent throat cancer to some extent.

If you or someone you know is experiencing the symptoms of throat cancer that don’t go away after a few weeks, then schedule a visit to the doctor. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the more likely it will be able to get treated with surgery or endoscopy.