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Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is cancer of any of the parts of the throat. The throat (or pharynx) starts behind the nose and continues into the esophagus. Throat cancer is a kind of head and neck cancer.

The following types of throat cancer can develop:

  • 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
  • Salivary gland cancer: occurs in the salivary glands and is typically a form of adenoid cystic carcinoma, adenocarcinoma or mucoepidermoid carcinoma, depending upon the type of cell in which the tumor starts

Throat cancer symptoms

Symptoms can depend on where in the throat the cancer develops. There are, however, some symptoms that many types of throat cancer share:

  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Ear pain
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • A lump in either the neck, nose, throat or back of the mouth (depending on which type of throat cancer it is)
  • A change in voice
  • Noisy breathing

Throat cancer risk factors

Many throat cancers share common risk factors that can increase someone’s chance of developing this form of cancer:

  • Smoking or use of other tobacco products
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Having human papillomavirus (HPV); a specific form of HPV — HPV 16 — can increase the risk for tonsil cancer or tongue cancer

In addition to the above, the following are risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer:

  • Being of Chinese or Asian descent
  • Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus (a type of herpes virus)

How can I get help for throat cancer?

If you experience any of the above symptoms of throat cancer, contact your primary care doctor. If your doctor suspects you have throat cancer, he or she will likely refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist for further testing.

Care for throat cancer at Rush

Diagnosis

  • 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. At Rush, ENT specialists can often perform this biopsy in the office (versus under general anesthesia) for tumors of the larynx, tongue and throat.

Developing a plan

Because throat cancers can affect your ability to eat, talk and breathe, it is important to seek care from a team of specialists like those found at the head and neck cancer program at Rush. These specialists will likely include medical oncologists; ear, nose and throat surgeons; radiation oncologists; rehabilitation therapists and reconstructive surgeons.

Your treatment will depend on several factors, including the following:

  • Which type of throat cancer you have
  • The stage of the cancer
  • Your general health and age
  • Keeping your breathing, eating and ability to talk as close to normal as possible

Your doctors will work with you to determine the best treatment course for your type of cancer. This may include some of the following, whether alone or in combination.

Tumor removal surgery

  • Preserving function: 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 in the throat it occurs.
  • Minimally invasive surgery: 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: With robotic surgery, head and neck surgeons use very small tools attached to a robotic arm to remove hard-to-reach tumors through the mouth.
    • Endoscopic approaches: Surgeons use a small, flexible tube (an endoscope) to see inside the body and remove tumors without making large incisions.

Radiation therapy

  • Intensity-modulated radiation therapy is typically used to treat throat cancer. This form of radiation therapy uses 3-D CT images to determine the tumor’s shape, and then focuses high doses of radiation precisely on the tumor.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumor in the following ways:

  • In combination with radiation therapy
  • For patients with metastatic disease

Reconstruction

  • 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 plastic surgeons specially trained in reconstructive techniques for the jaw, face, eyes, sinuses and throat. Using advanced microvascular techniques, these surgeons can use tissue from other parts of your body to recreate parts that were affected by the tumor and the surgery to remove it.

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation is an important part of throat cancer care. This is because the tumor itself or surgery to remove it can affect a person’s ability to speak, swallow or eat. In these cases, you may be referred for one or more of the following:

Why choose Rush for throat cancer care

  • Team-based approach: Head and neck specialists at Rush meet regularly to discuss patient cases in order to provide team-based care for throat cancer. This team care focuses on creating individualized plans that target the tumor while maintaining your quality of life.
  • Surgical expertise: Head and neck cancer surgeons at Rush have experience with the latest techniques and perform a high volume of procedures. This gives them the experience and expertise needed to determine which surgeries or other treatments will be most effective for each patient’s needs — whether the patient has newly diagnosed or recurrent cancer. 
  • Advanced radiation capabilities: Radiation therapists at Rush have extensive experience and access to advanced radiation technologies. They are able to conform radiation beams to tumors with great precision. This precision means tumors can receive higher doses of radiation while healthy tissues surrounding the tumors receive less radiation.
  • Alternative therapies: Rush offers alternative, complementary therapies to help address the side effects of cancer care. These therapies include acupuncture, massage and yoga.
  • Quality care: The Rush University Cancer Center received the 2014 Outstanding Achievement Award from the American College of Surgeons’ Commission on Cancer. Rush has received this triennial award all four times since the award was created in 2004. The prestigious award recognizes programs that excel in providing quality cancer care.

Departments and programs that treat this condition