The Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Throat Cancer

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Throat cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the pharynx (throat) or the larynx, which is more commonly known as the "voice box." The term "throat cancer" encompasses several different types of cancer, such as nasopharyngeal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, hypopharyngeal cancer, and glottic cancers that can develop in the throat.

Overview

Cancer can start any place in the body. It starts when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells.

This makes it hard for the body to work the way that it should and it causes problems in the part of the body where the cancer started.

Symptoms

While symptoms may vary based on tumor location and type, you should keep an eye out for:

If you experience symptoms for two weeks or longer, you should see your doctor for an exam. Symptoms of the disease are vague, meaning they are also the signs of many other illnesses, many of which are less severe than throat cancer. If you are experiencing persistent symptoms, do not wait for them to go away on their own before seeing your doctor. A delay could potentially be the difference between early or late detection of cancer, which may affect treatment outcome.

Symptoms may also come and go. Persistent doesn't always mean constant. For example, you may have a sore throat for a week, and then it goes away for a few days, and then returns. Whether your symptoms are constant or erratic, making an appointment to see your doctor is essential to rule out diseases such as cancer.

Causes

While scientists don't know definitively what causes throat cancer, researchers have identified several risk factors for the disease, including:

Diagnosis

Throat cancer is most often diagnosed when a person seeks medical care for one or more of the above symptoms. 

First, your doctor will review your health history to determine whether you may be at risk for throat cancer. If you are a smoker, or if you drink alcohol, or if you have any other habits that may be unfavorable to your health, it's important to let your doctor know. While he or she may warn you of how these habits may affect your health and encourage you to stop, he or she is not passing judgment. Information such as being a smoker or drinker can help the doctor identify whether you are at risk of certain diseases, like throat cancer.

Then, your doctor will perform a routine physical exam, during which he or she will feel the throat area for any lumps or other abnormalities. If he or she feels that you may have cancer or another disease, you may be referred to an otolaryngologist, also called an ENT specialist.

This type of doctor specializes in conditions that are related to the ears, nose, and throat.

To get a better view of the inside of the throat, an ENT doctor may recommend having a laryngoscopy. During this procedure, a thin, fiberoptic scope is fed down the throat, allowing the doctor to see the back of the throat, larynx, and vocal cords. During a laryngoscopy, a sample of tissue may be taken if any suspicious areas are discovered. This is called a biopsy and it either confirms or rules out cancer.

If cancer is found, it is then necessary to determine the extent of the cancer. This process is called staging.

The doctor will want to see whether the cancer has spread to nearby tissues or organs. The stage of throat cancer will affect which treatment method will be recommended for you.

Treatment

Several factors are taken into consideration when a treatment plan is developed for someone who has throat cancer. The person's age and overall general health are important, as well as the type, stage, and location of the cancer. Whether or not the cancer has spread plays a large role in determining which treatment method is best.

Surgery and radiation therapy are standard methods of treatment for throat cancer. Surgery is very common in all stages of throat cancer and can have a curative effect in the early stages. Surgery can be as simple as using laser therapy to remove cancerous tissue, or it may be more aggressive. 

Radiation therapy is given as a primary treatment, and it's sometimes given after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells or to remove cancerous tissue that could not be removed during surgery.

Some people who have throat cancer may undergo chemotherapy to treat the disease. It is normally prescribed in conjunction with other treatment methods, like surgery and/or radiation therapy, as neoadjuvant or adjuvant therapy. 

Sources:

American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancerbasics/what-is-cancer

National Institutes of Health. Cancer - throat or larynx. Updated 28 Feb 2011. Accessed 18 June 2011.
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001042.htm

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