Throat cancer is caused by cancerous cells that line the throat and surrounding structures, leading to the formation of tumors. There are many types of throat cancer. Throat cancer commonly includes pharyngeal cancers that are subdivided depending on what area of the throat they affect. Common pharyngeal cancers include nasopharyngeal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, and hypopharyngeal cancers. Throat cancers also include laryngeal cancers that can arise from the voice box or vocal cords and cause glottis. What causes throat cancer varies among patients, but common risk factors include tobacco use, human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, and genetic mutations.
Luckily, when it comes to how common is throat cancer, throat cancers are relatively less common than other types of cancer. However, early diagnosis can be difficult because throat cancer symptoms often resemble less serious conditions.
If you’re wondering what are the signs and symptoms of throat cancer, they include a persistent sore throat, cough that does not go away, hoarseness, lymph node swelling in the neck, headache, earache, and unexplained weight loss., If you experience any of these throat cancer symptoms, consulting your doctor to get a diagnosis is extremely important. Early throat cancer diagnosis can help patients get the cancer treatment they need in time to prevent the spread of the disease.
Throat cancer diagnosis is done in several ways, and a complete diagnosis usually involves thorough examination of the patient through a few conventional approaches. When you consult your doctor, the following procedures may be done to test for oral cancers that include cancers of the head, neck, throat, and mouth:
This type of examination allows your doctor to have a better view of the throat and larynx, or area where the vocal cords are. To do this, your doctor inserts a small telescope or mirror down your throat to examine these areas carefully. A laryngoscopy can be done through direct or indirect approaches.
A direct laryngoscopy is done under complete sedation and you won’t be aware of the procedure while it is happening. Your doctor uses a small telescope in the direct laryngoscopy.
In an indirect laryngoscopy, you will only be given local anesthesia in your throat, and a small mirror will be inserted down your throat for examination.
If the laryngoscopy shows abnormalities in the throat or larynx, your doctor will have you proceed with additional tests.
A biopsy is a procedure in which a small piece of tissue will be taken from the area where abnormalities are observed. This tissue is then tested for the presence of cancer cells. Biopsies can be done in several ways. It may be done as a surgery under general anesthesia. A biopsy can also be done by fine needle aspiration through which a needle is inserted into the tumor and cells are aspirated out. In an endoscopic biopsy, an endoscope is used to remove part of the tissue that needs to be tested.
If cancerous cells are detected through a biopsy, your doctor will order more tests that can provide information on what stage the cancerous tissue is at, and how progressed it is. The following imaging tests are used to examine the throat, head, and neck to test whether the cancer is present in other nearby organs as well.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
An MRI creates images of inside the neck area through a machine that uses magnets and radiowaves. The procedure involves the patient lying still inside a tube to allow the machine to capture images. The images created by an MRI can allow your doctor to see whether the cancer has spread to other areas.
Computer Tomography (CT) Scan
CT scans create images using X-rays and are a popular method used to image tissues and internal organs. In the diagnosis of throat cancer, a CT scan produces images that allow your doctor to see the size of the tumor and whether it has spread to other areas.
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan
PET scans use a radioactive dye that is introduced into the body to act as a tracer. These tracers collect in regions of the body where there is higher chemical activity, such as where cancer cells are present. Cancerous cells appear as bright spots on a PET scan image. PET scans are usually used to image cancers that are in the advanced stages.
Stages of Throat Cancer
The results of the imaging tests can help determine what stage the throat cancer is at. Throat cancer is divided into stages 0 to stage IV.
- In Stage 0, the cancer only affects the top layer of cells that lines the larynx or part of the throat that is affected.
- In Stage I (often called early stage cancer), the cancer is confined to the region where it originated.
- In Stage II, the tumor is larger than in stage I and may have spread to nearby areas.
- In Stage III, the tumor is larger than 4 cm and is seen to have spread to other areas in the throat or into one lymph node.
- In Stage IV, the tumor has spread to multiple lymph nodes and distant organs.
In regard to how to treat throat cancer, methods will depend on the results of diagnosis. Factors such as what stage the cancer is at, what type of throat cancer it is, and what cell types form the tumors will determine what kind of treatment method should be used. Common throat cancer treatment methods include radiation therapy, surgery, and targeted therapy with drugs. All throat cancer cases are different, and cancer should always be treated in a way that is personally best for you based on your medical history and severity of the disease.
Written By: Dr. David Alvarez
Dr. David Alvarez is a Board Certified Medical Doctor from Universidad Xochicalco and Certified by the American Heart Association (Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support).
Dr. Alvarez has been collaborating with Dr. Bautista as an Assistant Medical Director at the Immunity Therapy Center for over 6 years. He provides daily on site patient care and participates on the medical board on research and development of patient treatment plans and programs. Dr. Alvarez is a knowledgeable and compassionate Doctor committed to helping patients get to where they want to be health wise through a more holistic and comprehensive approach.
At Immunity Therapy Center, our goal is to provide objective, updated, and research-based information on all health-related topics. This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles. All information has been fact-checked and reviewed by Dr. Carlos Bautista, a Board Certified Medical Doctor at Immunity Therapy Center. All information published on the site must undergo an extensive review process to ensure accuracy. This article contains trusted sources with all references hyperlinked for the reader's visibility.