Throat cancer may develop in any part of the throat, whether that's in the voice box, the vocal cords, the tonsils or in the oropharynx. As there are many different structures in the throat that can be affected, the symptoms may manifest in a number of different ways. Like most types of cancer, if caught in its early stages, there is a much higher chance that it won’t prove to be fatal.
Throat cancer is four times more common in men than in women, and generally affects people over the age of 40. Most head and neck cancers develop in the larynx (the voice box) as laryngeal cancer, which affects around 2,400 people in the UK each year. The disease can also develop in the pharynx, the hollow tube that runs from behind the nose to the windpipe, as pharyngeal cancer.
Signs and symptoms of throat cancer
Common early signs of throat cancer include:
- Hoarse voice
- Difficulty or pain when swallowing
- A constant sore throat
- Bleeding in the throat
- A lump in the neck
- Problems breathing in severe cases
There are generally three main components in developing throat cancer. The first is when a tumour forms, the second is when cancer becomes present in lymph nodes, and the last is possible metastasis (when cancer spreads to other parts of the body).
Throat cancer causes and risk factors
The causes of throat cancer include smoking or chewing tobacco, excessive consumption of alcohol, poor dental hygiene and an unhealthy diet, which lacks fruit and vegetables. In other cases, exposure to certain carcinogenic chemicals such as asbestos is also a risk factor. The human papillomavirus (HPV) and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease have also been known to increase the chances of throat cancer. Age can also be a factor as the older one gets, the higher the risk.
How is throat cancer treated?
There are a number of treatments for throat cancer available. A specialist can advise you on which treatment suits you best according to your needs. What they recommend will depend on where the cancer is located, how advanced it is and the level of your general health.
Throat cancer treatments include:
- Radiation therapy – radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, may be sufficient to beat throat cancer if it is caught at the early stage. It employs the use of radiation in order to kill the cancerous cells.
- Chemotherapy – often used alongside radiation therapy, chemo employs the use of certain cytotoxic drugs in order to destroy the cancerous cells and halt their reproduction.
- Surgery – In advanced cases of throat cancer, surgery may be accompanied by other treatments such as radiation therapy in order to increase the chances of a successful recovery. There are various surgical options available to treat throat cancer, depending which part of the throat cancer has to be removed. In severe cases of laryngeal cancer when the voice box has to be removed, the patient will never be able to speak normally again.
- Targeted drug therapy – uses specific drugs to target cells and cease reproduction of cancerous growth.