What is Throat Cancer?
Throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer that involves the pharynx and the larynx. The malignant tumor can develop in any part of the throat and termed according to the area of the throat that is affected such as the cancer of the nasopharynx which involves the upper portion of the throat. There are different types of cancer under throat cancer and each are termed accordingly. Throat cancer often affects people between the ages of 50 to 70 and predominantly affects the male gender. The peak onset of throat cancer is about age 64 to 66 years old with an increased risk to people who are smoking for a long time.
The throat is part of the digestive tract that can be located between the back of the tongue and the esophagus. It is composed of various blood vessels and pharyngeal muscles, the trachea and the esophagus. The only bones composed in the throat are the hyoid bone and the clavicle. The epiglottis is the fundamental feature of the throat which separates the esophagus and the trachea. It mainly acts by preventing food particles and liquid from entering the airway passage that can obstruct the air passage.
The throat is composed of the larynx and the pharynx. The larynx is also referred to as the voice box and can be located at the front of the neck. It is about 5cm in width and protects the trachea from food aspiration. It is also composed of two bands of muscles which forms the vocal cords and responsible for the generation of sound necessary for communication. The pharynx is immediately below the nasal cavity and above the esophagus and the larynx. It is part of the digestive and the respiratory system and is divided into three parts. The pharynx is an essential part of the throat that is responsible for vocalization. The pharynx is responsible for receiving the food during the process of deglutition when it is drawn upward and dilated in different sections.
The various compositions of the throat can all get affected with a growth of malignant tumor. Roughly all of these parts have different functions that are fundamental to daily existence and survival. If any of these parts get affected with throat cancer, it can result to a dysfunction and affect the quality of life. It is therefore necessary that the condition of throat cancer be given necessary medical attention.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of throat cancer depend on the region of the throat that is affected with malignant tumor growth. Throat cancer can develop in any portion of the throat which can not only lead to dysfunction of each region or part but can also affect the ability of an individual to speak and the facial aspect as well where facial distortion is possible.
The initial onset of symptoms manifesting throat cancer is usually nonspecific and may seem harmless. The persistence of nonspecific symptoms however is what makes the throat cancer different from other types of cancer. The symptoms are often apparent during the early stage of the cancer especially the malignant tumor develops in the vocal cord.
Hoarseness or changes in voice that continually progresses is the initial sign of throat cancer during the early stage of the condition. A noticeable rough quality of voice that persists for more than three weeks is an early symptom signifying throat cancer.
Difficulty swallowing simultaneously occurring with hoarseness of the voice and lingering for more than a month is an early warning sign of throat cancer. The pain associated with the growth of tumor in the throat makes swallowing difficult. The pain perceived can be so severe that it can radiate to the ear and the head.
Coughing is a common symptom and common side effect of throat cancer. The growing tumor irritates the throat and stimulates coughing. The cough is characterized as dry and irritating and usually does not resolve even with cough medicine. A blood stained sputum may be observed and may also have a foul smell which is due to cancer growth that has become ulcerated and bleeding.
Sore throat is another early symptom that lingers for more than 6 weeks. It usually develops in the mouth and the throat which typically appear as a small sore similar to canker sore during the initial onset. Depending on the region of the throat affected, the sore can rapidly increase in size and the color can go from flesh to very dark color. The most common site for sore throat development is the roof of the mouth, under the tongue and at the back of the throat.
Throat pain is the result of swelling and ulceration in the throat. The pressure in the ear and nose may also develop due to the increasing size of the tumor which can later bring earache and headache that can be so severe. The severe pain can hinder the appetite and disrupt the eating habit and cause difficulty in swallowing.
Weight loss is usually due to a disruption in the eating habit brought by the discomfort of sore that has developed in the mouth and at the back of the throat causing pain and difficulty in swallowing. The weight loss even without the lack of interest to eat may be implicated in the deficiency or the inability to absorb nutrients as a result of damage cells within the esophagus or salivary glands or may be due to the rapid growth of the tumor causing the body to absorb nutrients faster than the other cells.
Puffy neck is apparent during the advance stage of throat cancer. The puffiness is the result of the tumor that is developing and increasing in size which will push the other structures of the neck to accommodate the growing tumor.
Laryngeal stridor or a high pitched crowing sound occurs during the advance stage of throat cancer. The laryngeal stridor is the result of glottic obstruction or an obstruction in the airway passage brought by the tumor growing within the region of the throat.
Difficulty in breathing is experienced on the advance stage of throat cancer. The growth or the continual increase in the size of the tumor within the throat is causing obstruction in the airway passage thereby resulting in difficulty in breathing or may also result to asphyxiation or suffocation.
Fatigue, general body weakness and tiredness are common during the late stage of throat cancer which is also the usual in other forms of cancer and wasting disease.
Throat cancer can affect or metastasize to the surrounding tissues like the esophagus and the trachea. Metastasizing to distant area such as the lungs is rather rare in throat cancer. Certain symptoms that signify cancer extending to adjacent tissues include the following:
- Inability to speak or a slurred speech when the malignant tumor has reached the tongue
- An apparent enlargement of the neck particularly in the front area of the neck which is due to the progression of soft tissue mass after the cartilage of the thyroid has been damaged leading to swelling of the fauces
- A palpable swollen lymph node when the malignant tumor has reached the lymph nodes
What does Throat Cancer look like?
Most throat cancers initially originate from squamous cells that throat cancer is among the type of squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell typically looks like thin scales similar to the scales of a fish. This type of cell however has the ability to invade deeper tissues of the muscles although initially it can be noninvasive.
Throat cancer may also look like unusual white patch of tissue termed as leukoplakia. The leukoplakia is apparent under imaging test and cannot be rubbed off.
The appearance of throat cancer on the other hand depends on the part of the throat that is affected by cancer and the stage of its development. Cancer of the larynx for example is seen with red patches with an irregular surface. Throat cancer may also appear us heaped up cells or sores of reddish colored lesions.
While the throat cancer is progressing, a lump may appear like bulging blisters or may appear as an accumulated mass of benign cells. The advance stage of cancer may have the tumor look like a round soft mass that may be hanging or may be appended on the lining of the throat.
The cancer in the throat is also classified into four stages which defines the extent of the tumor growth and spread in the surrounding areas.
Early stage of throat cancer includes stages I to III of throat cancer. The tumor size is somewhat small and is typically localized or has not metastasized to the surrounding areas. The early stage is treatable with surgery and radiation.
- Stage I has a small size of tumor approximately about 2 cm or less and has not reached the lymph nodes.
- Stage II has a size of more than 2 cm but less than 4 cm and has not spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage III is considered early when the size is small and the single involved node can still be removed and cured.
Advance stage composed of stage III and IV which are noted for enlargement and spread to the lymph nodes.
- Stage III in advance stage is extensive with a tumor size of more than 4 cm and spread only to one lymph node and the lymph node with the cancer measures approximately more than 3 cm.
- Stage IV cancer measures more than 6 cm and has spread to surrounding tissues and multiple lymph nodes.
Metastatic stage is defined as cancer that has spread to distant area aside from the surrounding tissues of the throat.
Recurrent cancer is the stage that remains unresponsive to complete treatment or may have recurred after responding completely in primary treatment.
What does Throat Cancer feel like?
Throat cancer generally causes a feeling of discomfort in the throat among the majority of patients. The discomfort is characterized by a feeling of foreign body lodged in the throat. This results in persistent coughing as a method of removing the perceived foreign body in the throat.
A feeling of a lump in the throat is very common even if it is not a true lump. Globus hystericus is the term used to this feeling of lump in the throat even in the absence of true lump. The growth of a tumor in the throat and in the larynx on the other hand results in a feeling of a lump in the throat which is basically from the existence of a true lump.
Coughing is exhibited in an attempt to clear the throat triggered by the perception of foreign body lodged in the throat. The persistent coughing in turn could result to ulceration and irritation of the throat and result to bloody sputum. Difficulty in swallowing on the other hand is exhibited and is mainly due to the presence of a true lump in the throat.
Throat cancer like any other forms of cancer occurs when genetic mutations developed at an uncontrollable rate subsequently killing the healthy cells. The etiology of genetic mutation in throat cancer on the other hand is not clearly understood. The onset however is being implicated on factors or potential risk factors for throat cancer.
Smoking and substance abuse are the most implicated in throat cancer. Tobacco chewing and smoking is mostly implicated. Excessive alcohol drinking is also considered in the development of throat cancer. The substances contained in both the alcohol and tobacco is believed to cause irritation in the throat subsequently killing the healthy cells.
Poor diet in throat cancer is defined to be an insufficiency of fruits and vegetables in the diet. Certain fruits and vegetables are found to contain nutrients that particularly encourage growth of healthy cells thus preventing the development of cancer cells in the body.
Human papillomavirus is being considered as a risk factor for throat cancer. Engaging in oral sex with an HPV infected partner is a factor considered in transmitting the virus that can cause damage to tissues and healthy cells of the throat upon invasion.
It is important to undergo a proper diagnostic procedure to determine and confirm suspicions of throat cancer. A prompt diagnosis is tantamount to a good prognosis upon identification of the extent of cancer and its location and upon determining the appropriate treatment.
Physical examination is the initial step in diagnosing a patient where a health professional acquires pertinent information that leads to suspicion of an emanating cancer in the throat.
Endoscope is a specially lighted scope that is mostly utilized in identifying tumor growth through close imaging of the throat and its surrounding tissues.
Laryngoscope is another type of scope utilized to identify tumor growth in the voice box or in the larynx. It uses a magnifying lens that is inserted in the voice box to evaluate for changes in the vocal cords.
Biopsy is considered if abnormalities or any changes have been identified following the scope procedure. A tissue sample is collected and sent to the laboratory for further test and confirmation of cancer.
Imaging tests such as X-ray, magnetic resonance imaging, computerized tomography and positron emission tomography may be recommended and are beneficial in determining the extent of cancer growth.
Staging follows as soon as cancer of the throat has been confirmed. The staging of the cancer is beneficial in determining the extent of cancer and the appropriate treatment necessary.
The method of treatment for throat cancer depends on the location and extent or stage of the cancer and the type of cells involved. The age, overall health status and personal preference of the patient are also considered in preparing a program of treatment appropriate to the patient.
Chemotherapy is often used in combination with radiation therapy for optimal effect. Some patient would not opt for chemotherapy because of the medical side effect and it is necessary that the importance and benefits of chemotherapy are discussed with the patient.
Radiation therapy alone is indicated for early stage cancer while it is used in combination with chemotherapy for advanced stages of cancer. The radiation therapy can be done through external beam radiation or through brachytherapy.
Surgery may be recommended depending on the stage and location of the cancer. Early stage throat cancer may be surgically removed through endoscopy. Laryngectomy is indicated for removing a part or the whole of the voice box depending on the size or stage of the cancer.
The prognosis of throat cancer is good if diagnosed early and treated promptly. The early stage cancer can be cured completely and the function of the vocal cords can be restored. Radiation therapy alone can cure the cancer in early stage even without surgery.
The prognosis of throat cancer however is dependent on the stage and extent of the cancer and the stage when diagnosis was made. The late stage of cancer on the other hand has a poor prognosis and may not be as good as diagnosing the cancer during the early stage.
The survival rate for throat cancer is dependent on the stage of the cancer by the time it was diagnosed and also depends on the overall health status of the patient and the response to treatment.
- Stage 1 throat cancer has a five year survival rate treated with a radiation therapy alone while surgical removal has a higher survival rate compared to radiation therapy of stage 1 cancer.
- Stage 2 throat cancer treated with radiation therapy alone also has a five year survival rate.
- Stage 3 throat cancer on the other hand has a survival rate of below five years as most cancers in this stage is usually diagnosed during the advance stage where the lymph nodes in the neck and other areas of the throat has been swollen.
- Stage 4 throat cancer has a poor survival rate and the patient usually requires a comprehensive treatment. Surgery is the primary method of treatment following a pre-operative radiation therapy while postoperative chemotherapy is necessary.
Adil karim from Pakistan on February 15, 2020:
Throat cancer most often begins in the flat cells that line the inside of your throat
Kait on March 29, 2019:
Me too Rodney. How are you doing
Rodney on May 01, 2017:
I have small white bump at back of throat that bother me . Ben to doc . nothing yet thinking might be pre stage one