Throat cancer is a form of head and neck cancer that starts in the throat, the larynx (voice box) or vocal chords.
Types of Throat Cancer
There are two different types of throat cancer:
Pharyngeal cancer forms in the pharynx, the tube from your nose to your windpipe. Subtypes of this cancer include:
- Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
- Oropharyngeal cancer occurs in the oropharynx, the middle of the throat, which includes the base of the tongue, tonsils and soft palate (back of the mouth); oropharyngeal cancer can also be considered a type of oral cancer.
- Hypopharyngeal cancer occurs in the hypopharynx, the lower part of the throat at the entrance to the esophagus.
Laryngeal cancer occurs in the larynx (often called the voice box), a part of the throat near the tongue base and hypopharynx.
Signs You Should Get Help for Throat Cancer
The symptoms of throat cancer may vary based on the location of the tumor. If you are experiencing any of the following, you should contact your doctor to be screened for throat cancer:
- A persistent sore throat or cough
- Ear pain
- Difficulty swallowing
- A lump in either the neck, nose, throat or back of the mouth
- A hoarse voice
- Noisy breathing
If your doctor suspects you have throat cancer, they will likely refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist for further testing.
Throat Cancer Treatment at Rush
The first step will be getting a diagnosis of throat cancer, which includes the following:
- Laryngoscopy: An ear, nose and throat specialist will use a laryngoscope (a thin, flexible lighted tube) to examine your throat.
- Biopsy: Your doctor may take a biopsy (a sample of your tissue) to determine whether you have throat cancer. ENT specialists at Rush can often perform this biopsy in the office — rather than in the operating room under general anesthesia — for tumors of the larynx, tongue and throat.
If you do have throat cancer, your care team will work with you to determine the best treatment course for your type of cancer.
Your treatment plan may include the following, alone or in combination:
Tumor Removal Surgery
A key concern when treating throat cancer is saving your larynx so you can still speak and swallow. Your doctors may recommend the surgical removal of all or part of the affected parts of the throat, depending on how advanced the cancer is and where it occurs in your throat.
Some throat cancers can be removed using minimally invasive techniques. Minimally invasive techniques typically result in less pain and shorter recovery times. These techniques include the following:
- Transoral robotic surgery (TORS): With TORS, head and neck surgeons use very small tools attached to a robotic arm to remove hard-to-reach tumors through the mouth.
- Endoscopic tumor removal: Surgeons use a small, flexible tube (an endoscope) to see inside the body and remove tumors without making large incisions.
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy is typically used to treat throat cancer. This form of radiation therapy uses 3D CT images to determine the tumor's shape and then focuses high doses of radiation precisely on the tumor.
Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumor in the following ways:
- In combination with radiation therapy
- For patients with metastatic disease
Photoimmunotherapy (PIT) is an experimental technique now in clinical trials if your head and neck cancer is not responding to radiation or chemotherapy, or when surgery is not feasible because the tumor is too hard to reach. It combines the immune system’s ability to target cancer cells precisely with laser energy’s ability to destroy those cells, and it delivers extremely precise laser beams that attach to the cancer and begin killing it almost immediately.
- Following surgery to remove your tumor, you may need reconstructive surgery to restore function in areas where the tumor was removed.
- Reconstruction surgery is performed by Rush plastic surgeons who are specially trained in reconstructive techniques for the jaw, face, eyes, sinuses and throat. Using advanced microvascular techniques, our surgeons use tissue from other parts of your body to rebuild areas that were affected by the tumor and the surgery to remove it.
Rehabilitation is an important part of throat cancer care. This is because the tumor or the surgery to remove it can affect your ability to speak, swallow or eat. In these cases, you may be referred for one or more of the following:
Rush Excellence in Throat Cancer Care
- Nationally recognized expertise: Rush's ear, nose and throat and cancer programs are ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
- Innovative treatments: Our team strives to effectively treat your tumor while, as much as possible, preserving your appearance, and your ability to breathe, speak and swallow. This includes using minimally invasive procedures — such as transoral robotic surgery (TORS) and photoimmunotherapy (PIT) — whenever possible for a quicker recovery, less scarring and a better quality of life.
- Enhanced recovery after surgery: We have an enhanced recovery after surgery (ERAS) practice at Rush University Medical Center to optimize your experience before, during and after surgery — and to empower you to be fully engaged in your recovery process. With ERAS, you can expect to recover faster, have a shorter hospital stay, experience less pain and nausea, and require less narcotic medication.
- Ongoing research for innovative treatments: Our throat cancer providers are also researchers who continually seek new treatment options for head and neck cancers, including throat cancer. This includes offering a variety of clinical trials to study different approaches. By participating in a clinical trial at Rush, you have access to treatments that may not yet be available elsewhere.