More Than a Sore Throat: Spotting the Signs of Throat Cancer

Happy, senior couple sitting on the bench in a park. Signs of throat cancer

Often, a sore throat is just a sign of a viral or bacterial infection. If, however, it does not go away or occurs with other symptoms, it could be an indicator of throat cancer, an umbrella term encompassing several types of head and neck cancers. If you are experiencing unusual throat symptoms with no known cause, which could be signs of throat cancer, it’s important to talk to your primary care provider.

Types of Throat Cancer

Learning about the different types of throat cancer can help you understand the signs. Throat cancers include pharyngeal cancer, which affects the pharynx — the tube between the nasal cavity and the esophagus — and laryngeal cancer, which occurs in the voice box.

Medical providers further categorize pharyngeal cancer according to the part of the pharynx in which it starts.

  • Hypopharyngeal cancer arises in the lower pharynx.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer affects the top part of the pharynx behind the nose.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer begins in the middle pharynx, such as the back of the mouth.

Another type of throat cancer, glottic cancer, affects the vocal cords. Still other types of throat cancer begin in different parts of the voice box.

What Factors Can Increase Your Risk?

A variety of factors can increase your risk of developing throat cancer. Two of the most significant risk factors are using tobacco, including cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and drinking alcohol. Many cases of hypopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers develop due to alcohol or tobacco use.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection can cause several types of cancer, including cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer. HPV may be responsible for 70% of oropharyngeal cancer cases in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Signs of Throat Cancer

A sore throat that does not get better may be one of the first signs of cancer’s presence. Other symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • hoarse voice or difficulty speaking
  • lump in the neck
  • pain in the neck or ears
  • ringing in the ears
  • trouble breathing
  • unexplained weight loss

If you experience head and neck symptoms, especially if they do not go away, tell your primary care provider. They may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician for a more specialized diagnostic workup and treatment.

Wide Range of Treatment Options

If you need treatment for throat cancer, your personalized plan will depend on several factors. These include the type of cancer, whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body — imaging tests, such as a PET scan, can help find areas of spread — and your overall health.

Fortunately, many treatments are available for throat cancers. These treatments include longstanding options, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and more recent innovations, such as targeted therapy. This form of treatment uses medications to kill cancer cells by attacking the substances that help them grow and spread.

If you notice potential signs of throat cancer, do not shrug them off. Seek medical help to find out what is causing them. If you do have cancer, finding it early can give you a better chance of successful treatment.

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