How does throat cancer develop?

Updated June 13, 2017

Throat cancer can be difficult to diagnose at first, because the earliest signs and symptoms are vague and similar to those of many other illnesses. In fact, the early warning signs of throat cancer often mimic common afflictions such as the flu or allergies. These include a sore throat, a persistent cough, a hoarse voice, unexplained weight loss, difficulty swallowing and even breathing problems. In the short term, these symptoms should not worry you. However, if these symptoms last for more than a few weeks, or if your cough produces blood, you should see your doctor for testing. The persistence of these symptoms could be early warning signs of throat cancer.

Causes and Progression

Throat cancer is a broad term used to describe any cancer of the throat or voice box region. According to the Mayo Clinic, most throat cancers are in the pharynx, which is the cavity that connects the nasal and throat passages. These are nasopharyngeal and oropharyngeal cancers. The remaining throat cancer cases occur in the larynx, which is the area responsible for our speech and breathing. These include glottic, supraglottic and subglottic cancer. Regardless of location, throat cancer is caused by mutations of squamous cells, which make up the lining of your throat. These cell mutations cause abnormal growths to develop. When mutated cells multiply at an uncontrollable rate, tumours develop in the throat. Not all throat cancer is malignant. However, even benign tumours can interfere with swallowing, or may partially block the windpipe.

Risk Factors

While there is no single cause of throat cancer, there are several things that can increase your risk of contracting it. These include asbestos exposure, the human papillomavirus (HPV) and alcohol abuse. Tobacco abuse, including cigars, pipes and chewing tobacco, is also strongly linked with throat cancer. Finally, a lack of antioxidants in your diet can increase your risk of any kind of cancer, including throat cancer. Antioxidants are found in fruits, vegetables and even tea. In South America and Indonesia, commonly used stimulants such as mate and the betel nut increase the risk of throat cancer. Unfortunately, avoiding these risk factors is not always enough. Some people are genetically predisposed to certain types of cancers, including throat cancer. If you have a family history of throat cancer, you should be checked regularly, especially if you have any of these risk factors. Early detection of throat cancer can improve your chance of beating it.

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About the Author

Erica Jacques is an occupational therapist and freelance writer with more than 15 years of combined experience. Jacques has been published on and various other websites, and in "Hope Digest." She earned an occupational therapy degree from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland, giving her a truly global view of health and wellness.