About throat cancer

Updated April 17, 2017

Throat cancer is the cancer of the vocal cords, the larynx (also known as the voice box), the nasopharynx, the oropharynx and other locations in the throat. In the United States, there are 30,000 to 35,000 people diagnosed with throat cancer each year and about 8,000 people die from the disease every year. The American Lung Association says that the incidence of throat cancers is much higher in men than in women, almost 90%. Men are also twice as likely to die of throat cancers. Throat cancer is curable if it is detected early. Throat cancer is especially unfortunate since it is preventable and could be detected early by simple oral examination.

Risk Factors

Tobacco use is a major risk factor for throat cancer. This includes all forms of tobacco use: cigarettes, pipes, cigars and chews. Alcohol use also increases the risk of developing throat cancer. People who smoke and drink excessively are at extremely high risk for developing throat cancer. Throat cancers also tend to develop in adults aged 50 and older. Gender is also another important risk factor. Men have 10 times higher probability of developing throat cancers than women. Other risk factors include poor dental hygiene, exposure to asbestos and a diet lacking vegetables and fruits.


Tobacco contains many cancer-causing agents (carcinogens) which bombard the cells in the throat. This eventually leads to genetic mutations in some cells, which grow uncontrollably. The mutated cells continue to live beyond normal life cycle and form tumour(s) in the throat.


Nasopharyngeal cancer is the cancer begins in the nasopharynx, which is located behind the nose. Laryngeal cancer is the cancer of the voice box. Oropharyngeal cancer is the cancer begins in the oropharynx, which is located behind the mouth. Hypopharyngeal cancer is the cancer of the hypopharynx, which is located above the oesophagus and windpipe. Glottic cancer is the cancer of the vocal cords. Subglottic cancer begins below your vocal cords, hence the name subglottic.


The initial symptoms of throat cancer are often confused with other less harmful diseases. Patients may have a sore throat, voice change, a lump outside of the neck, neck pain, difficulty in swallowing or ear ache. However, these symptoms are chronic and long lasting. Other symptoms of throat cancer include bleeding from mouth and weight loss. Throat cancers can be diagnosed using laryngoscopy. Laryngoscopy is an endoscope, which is equipped with a camera at the end of the scope to allow visualisation of the throat. If a tumour or any abnormal areas in the throat is found during laryngoscopy, a tissue sample is collected. The sample is sent to pathologists to test whether it contains cancerous cells or not. Imaging tests such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or X-ray will be recommended to determine how far your tumour has spread.


Throat cancers are treatable at early stages. 80% of patients with small tumours survive 5 years following cancer diagnosis. Patients with advanced throat cancer have much lower survival rate. The 5-year survival rate for these patients is only 30%. 50% of throat cancers are diagnosed at advanced stages. Despite education, the proportion of delayed diagnosis of throat cancer stays the same for the last four decades. For early-stage throat cancers, the most effective treatment is radiation therapy. For advanced throat cancers, radiation therapy is often combined with surgery or chemotherapy. Throat cancer has a high chance of recurrence. Almost 10 to 15% of throat cancer patients develop second primary tumours within 20 years of their treatment.

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About the Author

Dr. Tuan Dinh has 10 years of experience in writing and publishing in science and medicine. He obtained a Ph.D. degree in chemical engineering from University of California, Santa Barbara and a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering/nuclear engineering from Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden.