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An In Depth Look at Throat Cancer

Throat Cancer

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Updated June 23, 2014

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An In Depth Look at Throat Cancer

Throat Anatomy

Photo © A.D.A.M.

More than 24,000 people were diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009, and nearly 6,000 people died from this form of cancer. For many years, scientists believed that the biggest risk factor for developing throat cancer was the use of alcohol and tobacco -- but new studies also have shown a link between throat cancer and HPV infection, perhaps spread via oral sex. One study showed a direct correlation between the number of lifetime oral sex partners and an increased risk of developing throat cancer. In addition, sun exposure, poor oral hygiene, radiation exposure to the head and neck, and chemical exposure are also possible risk factors for developing throat cancer.

While the throat may seem like a small area, it is actually comprised of several regions, like the larynx and the oropharynx. So, different types of throat cancers are named after their place of origination, both the location of the body and the cell type. Throat cancer that begins in the squamous cells of the pharynx, for example, would be called squamous cell carcinoma of the pharynx. (Squamous cells are the most superficial skin cells and are often described as looking like scales under a microscope.) The vast majority of throat cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. The following are types of throat cancer:

Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer is cancer of the larynx, an organ in the front of the neck between the esophagus and the trachea (sometimes called the voice box). The larynx assists in breathing, speaking, and even swallowing. When the cells that make up the tissue of the larynx begin to multiply and divide at an unusual rate it is called laryngeal cancer. Most laryngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, or cancer that originates in the first layer of skin cells. Symptoms of laryngeal cancer include a cough that does not go away, earaches, a sore throat, hoarseness and other voice changes.

Pharyngeal Cancer

The pharynx is the portion of the throat that begins behind the nose and and stretches about five inches before it ends at the esophagus and trachea. Pharyngeal cancer is sometimes referred to as simply throat cancer or oral cancer, but it's sometimes further classified as cancer of the nasopharynx, oropharynx or hypopharynx, depending on its exact location. About 90 percent of these throat cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. They tend to affect males more than females.

Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oropharyngeal cancer is throat cancer that begins in the area just behind the mouth. This area involves the back of the tongue, the soft palate and the tonsils and the area behind the wisdom teeth. Oropharyngeal cancer is usually diagnosed through a biopsy of tissue. Symptoms of oropharyngeal cancer include:

  • difficulty swallowing
  • sore throat
  • weight loss
  • cough that does not resolve
  • ear pain

Oropharyngeal cancer is treated using surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. The prognosis for oropharyngeal cancer depends on the severity, or stage of the cancer.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer originates in the back of the throat and behind the nose, (the upper portion of the pharynx). Two risk factors set nasopharyngeal cancer apart from other throat cancers which are: Being of Asian ancestry, and exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus. Symptoms are similar to other throat cancers with the addition of nosebleeds and hearing loss. Tests used to diagnose nasopharyngeal cancer include MRI, CT Scan, PET Scan, and tissue biopsy. Treatment includes surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Many of the symptoms of throat cancer are similar to that of other less severe illnesses. You should see a doctor if you have a sore throat, cough, or lump that lasts longer than a couple of weeks. Emergency medical attention is necessary if you have difficulty swallowing or breathing.

While throat cancer can be a fatal illness, if caught early, most cases can be cured about 90 percent of the time. If you believe that you are having symptoms of throat cancer, or are at risk for throat cancer, you should talk to your doctor.

Sources:

Department of Health and Senior Services. Oral/pharyngeal Cancer. Accessed: February 25, 2010 from http://www.nj.gov/health/ccp/oral_pharyngeal_cancer.shtml

MedlinePlus. Cancer - Throat or Larynx. Accessed: February 25, 2010 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001042.htm

National Cancer Institute. Head and Neck Cancer: Questions and Answers. Accessed: February 25, 2010 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/sites-types/head-and-neck

National Cancer Institute. Nasopharyngeal Cancer Treatment. Accessed: February 25, 1010 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/nasopharyngeal/Patient/page4

National Cancer Institute. Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment. Accessed: February 25, 2010 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/oropharyngeal/Patient/page1

National Cancer Institute. What You Need To Know About Cancer of the Larynx. Accessed: February 25, 2010 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/larynx

New England Journal of Medicine. Case-Control Study of Human Papillomavirus and Oropharyngeal Cancer. Accessed: February 25, 2010 from http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/356/19/1944

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