Throat Cancer: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Updated in January 2023

Throat cancer is a type of cancer that can affect the larynx, pharynx, tonsils or other part of the throat. It is associated with symptoms like throat pain, difficulty swallowing or breathing, voice changes, hoarseness and weight loss for no apparent reason. 

Although it is rare, throat cancer can occur at any age. It is especially common in people over 50, in men, in smokers and in those with excessive alcohol intake. 

It is important to consult an ENT specialist if you notice any signs or symptoms of throat cancer. Following a thorough assessment and testing, a diagnosis can be concluded to initiate appropriate treatment. Treatment usually involves surgery followed by chemo and radiation therapy in some cases. 

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Types of throat cancer 

Depending on where the cancer grows, throat cancer can be classified into 2 main types: 

  • Laryngeal cancer: which affects the larynx, where the vocal cords are located 
  • Pharyngeal cancer: which affects the pharynx, a small tube where air flows from the nose to the lungs 

It is important for the type of throat cancer to be identified so that the most appropriate treatment can be started. This can increase chances of a cure and prevent complications. 

Main symptoms 

The main symptoms of throat cancer are: 

  • Persistent throat pain or ear pain 
  • Frequent coughing, that may or may not cause blood 
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing 
  • Voice changes for no apparent cause
  • Weight loss for no apparant cause 
  • Swelling or nodules on the neck
  • Noisy breathing
  • Snoring

Symptoms may vary depending on where the tumor is located. If the cancer is found in the larynx, it is possible to have voice changes. However, if difficulty breathing is more apparent, the cancer may be located in the pharynx. The only way to confirm a diagnosis is to consult an ENT specialist and to complete testing as ordered. 

Possible causes

Some factors that can increase your risk for developing throat cancer include: 

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol excessively 
  • Maintaining an unhealthy diet, with little fruit and vegetable intake and plenty of processed food 
  • HPV infection, transmitted through unprotected oral sex 
  • Asbestos exposure
  • Poor dental hygiene

It is possible to prevent cancer growth in the throat by not smoking, drinking in moderation, eating a health diet and avoiding unprotected oral sex. 

Confirming a diagnosis 

A throat cancer diagnosis can be confirmed by an ENT specialist, who will assess your symptoms, health history and order testing, like a laringoscope to visualize throat tissue. 

If changes are noted, the doctor can remove a biopsy of tissue for lab analysis, which will help to confirm the presence of cancerous cells. Other tests include an MRI, CT scan or X-ray. 

Stages of throat cancer 

After diagnosing throat cancer, the doctor may classify the cancer by stages, depending on its development: 

  • Stages 1 and 2: These are considered to be the initial stages, in which the tumor is small and reaches the most superficial cells. The cancer is limited to the throat and can be easily removed through surgery. Prognosis is usually positive. 
  • Stage 3: The tumor is larger and not limited to the throat. Some areas of metastasis may be noted. 
  • Stage 4: The most serious stage, as various metastases may be spread throughout the body, making treatment more difficult and prognosis poor. 

The more advanced the cancer stage, the more difficult the treatment. In its initial stages, it may be necessary to complete surgery to remove the tumor, while more advanced may require a combination of therapy like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. 

Treatment options

Treatment for throat cancer can vary depending on the stage of cancer, and is usually directed by an ENT specialist and an oncologist. Generally speaking, surgery is usually advised to remove as many cancerous cells as possible. It may be followed by sessions of chemotherapy or radiation therapy to ensure full elimination of any malignant cells. 

Depending on the tumor size, the doctor may remove just a part of the affected organ, or the whole organ. People with laryngeal cancer, for example, may have complications following tumor removal, like voice changes.

The doctor may also recommend other types of therapy following surgery, like speech therapy and physiotherapy to relearn how to chew and swallow. 

Is throat cancer curable? 

Throat cancer can be curable if identified in its initial stages and if treatment is started promptly. A good prognosis is associated with cancer that are limited and without any evidence of metastases to other parts of the body.