Throat cancer: symptoms, causes, and treatments

Written by: Professor Kavin Andi
Published: | Updated: 16/03/2023
Edited by: Top Doctors®

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:

  • Coughing
  • 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.

By Professor Kavin Andi
Oral & maxillofacial surgery

Professor Kavin Andi is an award-winning consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon and head and neck surgeon based in London who specialises in head and neck cancer.

Once his dual qualifications in medicine and dentistry had been completed at Bart’s and The London Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, Professor Andi undertook his basic surgical training in Essex. He then went back to the London Deanery Higher Surgical Training Programme in Oral and Maxillofacial surgery at The Royal London Hospital, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Luton and Dunstable Hospital, University College London and Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital.

He was ranked first among the highest level maxillofacial, ENT, and plastic surgeons in the UK by the joint committee for Higher Surgical Training following the reception of his FRCS award. This allowed Professor Andi to successfully complete a highly competitive Advanced Head and Neck Interface Training Fellowship at Guy’s Hospital. He did this in conjunction with a Fellowship of The Higher Education Academy award.

Professor Andi’s areas of interest include augmented reality, robotic surgery, and 3D virtual surgical planning, for which he was award the prestigious Norman Rowe Clinical Prize by the British Association of Oral and Maxillo-Facial Surgeons (2012). Among his interests and research, Professor Andi has also been published and has written original software on a variety of platforms which were user-friendly tools to collect data on clinical and outcomes research.

Other awards Professor Andi has been the recipient of the J.N. Kidd award from the Institute of Reconstructive Sciences (2016), a Clinical Excellence Award from St George's University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (2015), the Annual College Prize in Clinical Dentistry awarded by the University of London (1997), and many more in between.

Carrying out pioneering research at St George's, University of London Medical School and Cranfield University Centre for Digital Engineering, Professor Andi was appointed as a Visiting Professor in 2020. 

Professor Andi has held former roles as lead clinician of the St George’s and Royal Marsden Head & Neck Cancer MDT, regional professional advisor to the Royal College of Surgeons of England and President of The Institute of Reconstructive Sciences.

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