Any cancerous growth in the throat, voice box or tonsils is referred to as throat cancer. Cancer begins when a cell develops a genetic mutation that causes it to grow uncontrollably; eventually these cells will form a tumor. While it is not clear what causes the cells to mutate, there are some factors that may increase your risk.
Tobacco use, both smoking and chewing, long-term alcohol use, human papillomavirus (HPV) and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) have all been linked to throat cancer.
Throat cancer may go undetected for some time, since the symptoms closely resemble a number of other conditions. A cough, hoarseness or other changes in voice, difficulty swallowing and a sore throat are all common symptoms.
In order to determine what is causing these symptoms, your doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical exam. They will then perform an endoscopy with use of an endoscope, a thin tube with a light and a camera, in order to get a closer look. Once they find the growth they collect a sample to be sent out for a biopsy. Surgical tools can be passed through the endoscope, making the sample collection easy.
Once the biopsy has come back positive for cancer cells, the next step in the diagnosing process is to determine your cancer’s stage. The stages range from I to IV, I being a small tumor confined to a single area and IV being the most advanced. Imaging tests such as an MRI or CT scan may be ordered to see how far the throat cancer has spread.
There are a number of different treatment options for throat cancer. The extent and location of your cancer play just as much a role as your health and personal preference when choosing a treatment. There are three main types of treatment: radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. Typically, a combination of treatments will be used.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams, such as X-rays, to kill the cancer cells. This type of therapy is often able to successfully treat early stage cancers with no additional treatments needed.
The extent of the surgery needed to remove the cancerous cells depends entirely on how deep the cancer has spread. For mild cases the cancer cells can be scraped off the wall of the throat, while larger portions of your throat may need to be removed if the cancer has spread.
Chemotherapy uses drugs injected into your body to kill the cancer cells. Some forms of chemotherapy make the cells more susceptible to radiation so both treatments are used.
After your treatment, you may require rehabilitation. This therapy will help you work through any eating or swallowing difficulties or speech problems.