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Throat Cancer

The Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment of Throat Cancer

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Updated December 02, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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

Throat Cancer Causes

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

Throat Cancer Symptoms

While throat cancer symptoms can vary, you should keep an eye out for:
  • persistent cough
  • difficulty swallowing
  • persistent hoarseness or having to clear your throat frequently
  • sore throat
  • lump in the throat
  • change in the sound of your voice
  • abnormal breathing sounds

Diagnosing Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is most often diagnosed when a person seeks medical care for one or more of the above symptoms. The doctor will first perform a routine physical exam, during which he or she will feel the throat area for any lumps or other abnormalities.

To get a better view of the inside of the throat, the doctor may recommend having a laryngoscopy. During this procedure, a thin, fiber-optic 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 if the cancer has spread to nearby tissues or organs. The stage of throat cancer will affect which treatment method will be recommended for you.

Throat Cancer Treatment

Several factors are taken into consideration when a treatment plan is developed for someone with throat cancer. Their 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 what 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, to more aggressive surgical approaches.

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

Some people with 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.

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