Throat cancer, symptoms and treatment

throat cancer
understanding throat cancer

Research conducted by experts from Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital (MTRH) in Eldoret reveals that throat cancer is the most common cancer in men in Western Kenya.

The 2010 research also found that the disease is third most common cancer in women. It established that patients who suffer from esophageal cancer in western Kenya have an average age of 59.

According to the Mayo clinic, throat cancer refers to cancerous tumors that develop in the throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) or tonsils.

throat cancer
understanding throat cancer

The throat is a muscular tube that begins behind the nose and ends in the neck. Throat cancer most often begins in the flat cells that line the inside of the throat.

The voice box sits just below the throat and is also susceptible to throat cancer. The voice box is made of cartilage and contains the vocal cords that vibrate to make sound when one talks.

Throat cancer can also affect the piece of cartilage (epiglottis) that acts as a lid for the windpipe. Tonsil cancer, another form of throat cancer, affects the tonsils, which are located on the back of the throat.


Mayo clinic states that, throat cancer occurs when cells in the throat develop genetic mutations. These mutations cause cells to grow uncontrollably and continue living after healthy cells would normally die. The accumulating cells can form a tumor in the throat.

It’s not clear what causes the mutation that causes throat cancer. But doctors have identified factors that may increase the risk.

Factors that increase the risk of throat cancer

National cancer institute states that the risk factors differ depending on where the cancer grows in the throat.

As with many cancers, the risk of developing throat cancer increases with age, with most people being over the age of 65. Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop throat cancer in their lifetime.

The risk factors include;


Lack of fruits and vegetables; A diet low in fruits and vegetables can increase the likelihood of developing throat cancer.


Tobacco use; The use of cigarettes, pipes and cigars all increase the likelihood of developing throat cancer.

Alcohol use: Excessive use of alcohol can increase your throat cancer risks.

Other conditions

Human papillomavirus (HPV) Infection; New research has found that HPV infection is responsible for rising rates of throat cancer, in particular oropharyngeal cancer.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD); When acid leaks from the stomach into the esophagus, it causes acid reflux. Chronic acid reflux is called GERD, and increases throat cancer risk depending on the frequency and severity of the acid reflux.

Contracting epstein-barr virus (EBV); This common virus is transmitted via saliva. Contracting EBV increases the likelihood of developing throat cancer.

Symptoms of throat cancer

According to the cancer treatment centers of America, common throat cancer symptoms may include:

Difficulty when swallowing, also known as dysphagia; Because the food pipe is compressed due to swelling, the patient normally experiences difficulty swallowing food.

Sore throat; a sore throat that doesn’t seem to respond to antibiotic treatment along with other alternatives could be a possible symptom of throat cancer

Unexplained weight loss; Rapid weight loss may be recognized as a secondary effect due to dysphagia in which the patient loses appetite because of the difficulty taking in food. The patient’s loss of appetite can be so severe that he/she may not even think about eating during the day.

Chronic cough; Coughing may be resulting from a lot of factors, nonetheless; as this is one of the main protective reflexes of the body, chronic cough is regarded as the pronounced sign of throat cancer.

Swelling of the eyes, jaw, throat or neck;

Bleeding in the mouth or through the nose

Constant need to clear your throat

Changes in the voice

They state that some symptoms of throat cancer are specific to certain areas of the body. For instance, changes in your voice may be a sign of laryngeal (voice box) cancer, but would rarely indicate cancer of the pharynx.

Types of throat cancer

Throat cancer is a general term that applies to cancer that develops in the throat (pharyngeal cancer) or in the voice box (laryngeal cancer).

The throat and the voice box are closely connected, with the voice box located just below the throat.

Pharyngeal cancer is broken into three types:

  • Nasopharynx cancer forms in the upper part of the throat.
  • Oropharynx cancer forms in the middle part of the throat.
  • Hypopharynx cancer forms in the bottom part of the throat.

Laryngeal cancer refers to cancer that forms in the larynx, also known as the voice box.

Diagnosis of throat cancer

Several methods can be used in diagnosis, according to the Mayo clinic the methods include;

Using a scope to get a closer look at the throat. The doctor may use a special lighted scope (endoscope) to get a close look at your throat during a procedure called endoscopy.

A tiny camera at the end of the endoscope transmits images to a video screen that the doctor watches for signs of abnormalities in your throat.

Another type of scope (laryngoscope) can be inserted in the voice box. It uses a magnifying lens to help your doctor examine your vocal cords. This procedure is called laryngoscopy.

Removing a tissue sample for testing. If abnormalities are found during an endoscopy or laryngoscopy, your doctor can pass surgical instruments through the scope to collect a tissue sample (biopsy). The sample is sent to a laboratory for testing.

Imaging tests. Imaging tests, including X-ray, computerized tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), may help your doctor determine the extent of your cancer beyond the surface of your throat or voice box.

Staging – This means identifying the extent or stage of the cancer.

Once throat cancer is diagnosed, the next step is to determine the extent, or stage, of the cancer. Knowing the stage helps determine your treatment options.

The stage of throat cancer is characterized with the Roman numerals I through IV. Each subtype of throat cancer has its own criteria for each stage.

In general, stage I throat cancer indicates a smaller tumor confined to one area of the throat. Later stages indicate more advanced cancer, with stage IV being the most advanced.


There are different treatment options for throat cancer. The treatment method recommended by your doctor will depend on the location and stage of the throat cancer, the type of cells involved, your overall health, and your personal preferences.

The likely treatments will include;

Radiation therapy.

 Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams from sources such as X-rays and protons to deliver radiation to the cancer cells, causing them to die.

Radiation therapy can come from a large machine outside your body (external beam radiation), or radiation therapy can come from small radioactive seeds and wires that can be placed inside your body, near your cancer (brachytherapy).

For early-stage throat cancers, radiation therapy may be the only treatment necessary. For more advanced throat cancers, radiation therapy may be combined with chemotherapy or surgery.

In very advanced throat cancers, radiation therapy may be used to reduce signs and symptoms and make you more comfortable.


The types of surgical procedures considered to treat throat cancer depend on the location and stage. Options may include:

Surgery for early-stage throat cancer. Throat cancer that is confined to the surface of the throat or the vocal cords may be treated surgically using endoscopy.

The doctor may insert a hollow endoscope into the throat or voice box and then pass special surgical tools or a laser through the scope. Using these tools, your doctor can scrape off, cut out or, in the case of the laser, vaporize very superficial cancers.

Surgery to remove all or part of the voice box (laryngectomy). For smaller tumors, your doctor may remove the part of your voice box that is affected by cancer, leaving as much of the voice box as possible. Your doctor may be able to preserve your ability to speak and breathe normally.

For larger, more-extensive tumors, it may be necessary to remove your entire voice box. Your windpipe is then attached to a hole (stoma) in your throat to allow you to breathe (tracheotomy).

If your entire larynx is removed, you have several options for restoring your speech. You can work with a speech pathologist to learn to speak without your voice box.

Surgery to remove part of the throat (pharyngectomy). Smaller throat cancers may require removing only small parts of your throat during surgery.

Parts that are removed may be reconstructed in order to allow you to swallow food normally.
Surgery to remove more of your throat usually includes removal of your voice box as well. The doctor may be able to reconstruct your throat to allow you to swallow food.

Surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes (neck dissection). If throat cancer has spread deep within your neck, the doctor may recommend surgery to remove some or all of the lymph nodes to see if they contain cancer cells.

Surgery carries a risk of bleeding and infection. Other possible complications, such as difficulty speaking or swallowing, will depend on the specific procedure you undergo.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is often used along with radiation therapy in treating throat cancers. Certain chemotherapy drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy.

Combining chemotherapy and radiation therapy increases the side effects of both treatments thus the need to discuss with the doctor the side effects likely to experienced and whether combined treatments will offer benefits that outweigh those effects.

Targeted drug therapy

Targeted drugs treat throat cancer by taking advantage of specific defects in cancer cells that fuel the cells’ growth.

Cetuximab (Erbitux) is one targeted therapy approved for treating throat cancer in certain situations.

Cetuximab stops the action of a protein that’s found in many types of healthy cells, but is more prevalent in certain types of throat cancer cells.

Other targeted drugs are being studied in clinical trials. Targeted drugs can be used in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

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Prevention of throat cancer

In order to reduce the risk of throat cancer, you have to;

Stop smoking or don’t start smoking. If you smoke, quit. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Stopping smoking can be very difficult, so get some help. Your doctor can discuss the benefits and risks of the many stop-smoking strategies, such as medication, nicotine replacement products and counseling.

Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all. For women, this means one drink a day. For men, moderate drinking means no more than two drinks a day.

Choose a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables. The vitamins and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of throat cancer. Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.

Protect yourself from HPV. Some throat cancers are thought to be caused by the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV).

You can reduce your risk of HPV by limiting your number of sexual partners and using a condom every time you have sex. Also consider the HPV vaccine, which is available to boys, girls, and young women and men.

The throat cancer survival rate and the throat cancer diagnosis usually go hand in hand. If the symptoms and stage of throat cancer are discovered earlier, the individual will have a greater chance of survival and treatment so if one has any symptoms a visit to a doctor is the smartest step to take.