An In Depth Look at Throat Cancer

Ear Nose & Throat exam, Elderly Patient. Credit: BSIP/UIG / Getty Images

What Causes Throat Cancer

For many years, scientists believed that the biggest risk factor for developing throat cancer was the use of alcohol and tobacco. However, studies also have shown a link between throat cancer and HPV infection, perhaps spread via oral sex.

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.

For example, throat cancer that begins in the squamous cells of the pharynx 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. This type of cancer is sometimes further classified as cancer of the nasopharynx, oropharynx or hypopharynx, depending on its exact location.

About 90 percent of pharyngeal 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, the tonsils and the area behind the wisdom teeth. Oropharyngeal cancer is usually diagnosed through a biopsy of tissue.

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.

Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Many of the symptoms of throat cancer are similar to that of other less severe illnesses, and can include:

While throat cancer can be a fatal illness, if caught early, most cases can be cured. For this reason you should keep regular appointments with your doctor and your dentist. If you believe that you are having symptoms of throat cancer, or are at risk for throat cancer, you should talk to your doctor.


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