Whether you or a loved one are worried about developing throat cancer, are going through treatment or are trying to stay well after treatment, we’re here for you every step of the way.
What is throat cancer?
Your throat is a muscular tube that begins behind your nose and ends in your neck.
Throat cancer develops when normal, healthy cells in the throat region begin to grow and function differently. These cancerous cells can begin to build up and form a mass called a tumor, which exists as a lump inside the body and can spread. Throat cancer most often begins in the flat cells that line the inside of your throat.
There are several types of throat cancer:
- Laryngeal cancer – This is a cancer of the voice box. It can develop in any part of the larynx, and typically originates in the area around the vocal cords.
- Pharyngeal cancer – This type of throat cancer forms in the pharynx, the tube that connects the back of the nose to the top of the esophagus. It is divided into three separate areas.
- Nasopharynx– Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of cancer that forms in the upper part of the throat, behind the nose.
- Oropharynx– This type of cancer forms in the middle part of the throat, behind the mouth including the soft palate, side and back walls of the throat, and bottom of the tongue. It also includes tonsil cancer and can affect those who have had their tonsils removed in the small amounts of remaining tissue.
- Hypopharynx– This rare cancer forms in the hypopharynx, the area of the throat where the voice box and esophagus meet.
- Tracheal cancer – Tracheal cancer, or cancer of the windpipe, is a rare type of cancer than can affect a person’s ability to breathe. This type of cancer is commonly seen in smokers.
- Tonsil cancer – This type of cancer originates in the tonsils in the back of the throat. It can strike in those who have had their tonsils removed in the small amounts of remaining tissue.
Symptoms of throat cancer
Because symptoms of throat cancer can mimic other issues, such as sinus problems or allergies, it can be more challenging to diagnose. Symptoms of throat cancer may include:
- Noticeable change in your voice
- Difficulty swallowing
- Significant, unintentional weight loss
- Sore throat
- Persistent cough, or coughing up blood
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Ear pain
Having any of these symptoms does not automatically mean that you have throat cancer. However, it’s important to speak with your doctor to rule out any health issues.
Request an appointment
Throat cancer risk factors
Although throat cancer may be less common, there are still risk factors. While some factors are out of your control, there are lifestyle choices that can increase your risk of developing throat cancer, including smoking, alcohol use and environmental factors.
Risk factors for throat cancer include:
- Tobacco use: 85% percent of head and neck cancers, including throat cancer, are linked to tobacco use. This includes smokeless tobacco, cigarettes and pipes. Tobacco use is the single largest risk factor for cancers of the head and neck.
- Alcohol use: Prolonged, heavy alcohol use greatly increases your risk of certain types of head and neck cancer, including throat cancer.
- Other risk factors: Other risk factors that can increase your risk of developing throat cancer include human papillomavirus (HPV), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and poor diet.
How is throat cancer diagnosed?
Our team of cancer doctors are experienced in diagnosing and treating throat cancer at all stages, including advanced ones. Some of the diagnostic tests your doctor may perform to test for throat cancer include:
- Physical examination: If your doctor suspects you have throat cancer, he or she will perform a physical examination, feeling for lumps in the neck, upper chest, lips, gums and cheeks. To confirm an initial cancer diagnosis or to determine whether the cancer has spread, you may be asked to undergo further testing.
- Imaging tests: Imaging tests, such MRIs, CT scans and PET scans, are used to produce detailed pictures of the inside of your head or neck. These methods of diagnostic testing can determine the size of any tumors and whether they have grown, shrunk or spread.
- Barium swallow: For a barium test, you will need to swallow a chalky substance known as barium. Barium coats the lining of the esophagus, stomach and intestines so tumors or other abnormalities can be seen more clearly on an X-ray.
- Biopsy: During a biopsy, your doctor will remove a small sample of tissue to detect whether it contains cancerous cells (also called malignant cells). The tissue will be removed using a thin needle or during a surgical procedure and will be further examined beneath a microscope.
- Blood tests: Your doctor may order blood work to look for certain indicators of throat cancer or monitor how your treatment is progressing.
- Endoscopy: This procedure will allow your doctor to examine the inside of your throat and neck area. During an endoscopy, your doctor will insert a small scope into your nose or mouth to examine the hard-to-see areas of your head and neck.
Treating throat cancer
At Geisinger, our highly trained throat cancer specialists include surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, nurse navigators and support staff who come together to develop a personalized treatment plan around you.
Depending on the type, location and stage of your cancer, one or more of the following treatments may be recommended.
If the tumor in your throat is small, your surgical oncologist may opt to surgically remove it:
- Endoscopic surgery, which uses an endoscope (a long thin tube with a light and camera at the end), through which surgical instruments or lasers can be passed to treat early stage cancers
- Cordectomy, in which all or part of your vocal cords are removed
- Laryngectomy, which involves removing all or part of the voice box, depending on the severity of the cancer
- Pharyngectomy, which involves removing the tumor and/or a portion of the throat, either as a stand-alone procedure or in conjunction with other treatments
- Neck dissection, a common procedure for head and neck cancers, which is used to remove lymph nodes and surrounding tissue of the neck
Chemotherapy is a drug-based treatment designed to slow the growth of or shrink tumors located in the throat region.
Chemotherapy drugs can be given through an IV or taken in pill form.
Your chemotherapy may be given:
- Before your surgery, to attempt to reduce the size of the tumor
- After your surgery, to destroy any cancer that still remains and reduce the chances of the cancer coming back
- Along with radiation therapy, which is known as chemoradiation or chemoradiotherapy
Our team includes doctors called medical oncologists who specialize in chemotherapy. Our patients have access to clinical trials that include testing new chemotherapy drugs and combinations of medications that aren’t widely available.
Keeping you comfortable while you undergo your treatment is important to us. Our state-of-the-art clinics, many which have been recently renovated, offer heated seats and individual TVs to help you stay comfortable during treatment.
Radiation oncology uses radiation to control or destroy harmful cancer cells, with tools to treat each unique cancer.
Our board-certified cancer doctors and highly skilled clinical team deliver radiotherapy treatments that include:
- External beam radiation, which uses special technology to send X-ray radiation (photons) to the tumor from outside the body
- Internal radiation (brachytherapy), which targets the tumor using safe levels of radiation inside the body through radioactive tubes or radioactive seeds
- Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), which uses a 3D image of the tumor to deliver high-precision radiotherapy that fits its exact outline
- Image-guided radiation therapy (IGRT), which is used to localize the radiation beam daily and treat cancers in areas of the body that move during and between treatment. This includes Cone Beam CT scans to accurately view the tumor and target it during treatment.
- Stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT), which uses precise conformal beams of radiation to focus high doses of radiation to just the tumor, with very little damage to surrounding healthy tissues
Our extensive history with cancer research and clinical trials gives you access to new treatments, often before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help improve your condition, even if standard approaches haven’t worked in the past. Find a clinical trial near you.
Targeted drugs treat throat cancer by taking advantage of specific defects in cancer cells that fuel cells' growth. These can be used in tandem with chemotherapy or radiation.
Throat cancer care at Geisinger
Cancer is unique to each person, which is why Geisinger’s cancer care team gets to know you along your journey. While some of our cancer specialists are trained in treating specific cancers, our entire team works together to help you fight your cancer — every step of the way.
Our throat cancer specialists are dedicated to providing innovative treatments and personalized cancer care. We offer:
- Unmatched expertise – Our cancer team consists of surgeons, doctors and specialists, many of whom are fellowship trained. This team of highly trained specialists treats many patients with throat and other cancers each year, and is focused on delivering the most personalized, excellent care that is suited to each patient’s needs.
- World-class care, close to home – With locations throughout central, northeast and south-central Pennsylvania, our experienced cancer team provides consultations and comprehensive care. We offer leading-edge treatment options and tailored-to-you care backed by the expertise and innovation of a nationally recognized health system.
- Comprehensive specialty care – From chemotherapy, radiation and minimally invasive surgery options to national clinical trials and genetic testing, our throat cancer specialists are dedicated to offering innovative treatment options and personalized care in convenient locations, so you don’t have to travel far.
- Leading-edge clinical trials – Our extensive history with cancer research and clinical trials gives you access to new treatments before they become widely available. Participating in a trial may help you get better even if standard approaches haven’t worked. Find a clinical trial.
- Genetic testing and counseling programs – Our cancer genetics programs determine whether you face a higher-than-normal cancer risk. Special programs such as MyCode®, which are only available at Geisinger, detect the earliest signs of certain cancers so you can start treatment right away. Our care and guidance may even help you avoid a cancer diagnosis. Learn more or sign up for MyCode.
- Cancer survivorship program – Just because your treatment is complete doesn’t mean your journey has ended. We offer a variety of support resources focused on helping you live your healthiest life. Learn about patient resources.