Throat cancer is defined as cancer affecting the main part of the throat, the pharynx or the larynx, commonly called the voice box. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 24,000 people are diagnosed with throat cancer each year. It's not unusual to confuse the early signs of throat cancer with a cold, because it can cause similar symptoms. If you have throat cancer, you may experience coughing, ear pain, neck pain, swollen lymph glands, wheezing, hoarseness or sore throat. You might have trouble swallowing and it may feel as if there is a lump in your throat. If any of these symptoms persist for more than 2 weeks, see a doctor. If the disease progresses, you may lose weight without dieting or cough up blood.
Your chances of developing this type of cancer increase if you have been infected by the human papilloma virus (HPV), smoke, chew tobacco, drink alcohol excessively, have poor dental hygiene or have been exposed to asbestos.
If your doctor suspects that you may have throat cancer, she may recommend that you undergo endoscopy. During the endoscopy procedure, a thin, flexible tube containing a miniature camera is inserted into your throat. The images that the camera captures are transmitted to a video monitor, allowing your doctor to get a close look at specific areas of your throat. If cancer of the larynx is suspected, your doctor may perform a laryngoscopy instead. During this procedure, the larynx is examined using a special mirror or with a lighted tube.
If your doctor sees suspicious areas during laryngoscopy or endoscopy, she may collect a small tissue sample for testing. X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerised tomography (CT) and positron emission tomography (PET) scans may also be used for diagnostic purposes.
Treatment depends on the location of the cancer and the stage of the disease. Radiation therapy works particularly well with throat cancer and many people undergo this therapy, particularly if the cancer is detected during the early stages. During radiation therapy, high-dose x-rays are aimed directly at the throat to kill cancerous cells. Radiation therapy can also be accomplished by implanting radioactive seeds close to the tumour. Chemotherapy, a treatment that uses drugs to kill cancer cells, may be used in conjunction with radiation therapy.
Endoscopic surgery can be used to remove tumours in the early stages. If cancer is not detected until the later stages, it may be necessary to remove part of the throat or all or part of the pharynx. Removing the pharynx will affect your ability to speak and you will need to work with a speech pathologist to develop new ways of speaking without a voice box. Reconstruction of the throat is usually performed as part of the surgery to allow you to retain the ability to swallow.