SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Throat cancer is a common cancer. The number of Victorians affected is increasing.
- Smoking or chewing tobacco, and drinking alcohol puts you at higher risk.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a risk factor for certain throat cancers.
- Treatment for throat cancer is most effective if the disease is diagnosed early.
- See your doctor if you notice any changes to your throat or neck.
- Reduce your risk by stopping smoking, reducing your alcohol intake, practising safe oral sex and getting vaccinated against HPV.
What is throat cancer?
The throat (also called the pharynx) is a hollow tube that starts behind the nose and leads to the food pipe (oesophagus) and the windpipe (trachea).
About 600 people in Victoria are diagnosed with cancer of the throat each year.
The two main types of throat cancers are:
- pharyngeal cancer (of the pharynx)
- laryngeal cancer (of the larynx or voice box)
Cancers that begin in the tissue or lymph nodes in the throat and occur in the mouth, tongue, salivary glands, sinuses, nose or ear are grouped under the term – head and neck cancers.
This type of throat cancer can affect 3 parts of the pharynx, including the:
- Nasopharynx (known as nasopharyngeal cancer) – affects the upper part, behind the nose and soft palate.
- Oropharynx (known as oropharyngeal cancer) – affects the middle part, including the soft palate, base of the tongue and the tonsils.
- Hypopharynx (known as hypopharyngeal cancer) – affects the lower part around the voice box (larynx).
Cancer that starts in the larynx (voice box) is called laryngeal cancer.
The larynx (or voice box) is a short passage connecting the lower part of the throat (hypopharynx) with the windpipe (trachea). The thyroid gland sits in front of the trachea under the voice box.
Parts of the larynx include the:
- Epiglottis – the small flap of tissue that moves to cover the larynx to prevent food going into the trachea and lungs when you swallow.
- Glottis – contains the vocal cords that vibrate when air passes through them to produce the sound of your voice.
- Subglottis – located below the vocal cords.
How throat cancer spreads
The membranes of the throat are lined with flat, firm cells called squamous cells. Throat cancers can originate in these surface cells.
Some types of thyroid cancers can quickly invade nearby structures (such as the trachea). If not treated, the enlarging tumour can compress the trachea and cause breathing problems.
Throat cancer can also migrate to parts of the body (such as the lungs), so it’s important to diagnose and treat early.
Symptoms of throat cancer
Throat cancer can be treated if diagnosed at an early stage, so it’s important to see your doctor immediately if you notice any changes to your throat or neck.
In early stages, symptoms of throat cancer may not be noticeable.
Some throat cancer symptoms can be like symptoms of other illnesses, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you have cancer. The only way to tell, is to make an appointment with your GP and have the necessary tests to confirm a diagnosis.
Symptoms of throat cancer may include:
|Pharyngeal cancer||Laryngeal cancer|
Risk factors for throat cancer
Throat cancer risk factors include:
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) – the virus that causes
- (a )
- Poor diet
- chronic (enlargement of the thyroid gland)
- radiation exposure
Tobacco, alcohol, and throat cancer risk
If you smoke and drink, your risk of developing throat cancer is significantly higher.
While smoking and drinking are major risk factors for throat cancer, younger people who are non-smokers and non-drinkers are increasingly being diagnosed with this type of cancer.
HPV and throat cancer risk
While exposure to HPV, occurs primarily through , it usually clears from the body. However, for some people, persistent oral HPV damages cells and leads to oropharyngeal cancer. Symptoms can take months to develop.
Diagnosing throat cancer
Diagnosis depends on the nature of your symptoms. Your GP or dentist may do some general tests and refer you to a specialist. A diagnosis of throat cancer may include:
- Your medical history.
- Physical examination of the mouth, throat and neck by your dentist, doctor, specialist
- - a sample of cells or tissue for examination in a laboratory).
- Larynogoscopy – a procedure done under general anaesthetic where a tube with a light and a small camera (laryngoscope) is inserted into your mouth and throat to get a close-up view of any abnormalities.
- Endoscopy of the larynx – a thin tube with a light on the end (known as an endoscope) is inserted through the nose to examine any physical changes.
- Nasendoscopy – a procedure done under local anaesthetic to examine the nose and throat using a thin flexible tube with a light and camera on the end called a nasendoscope.
- Videostroboscopy – a topical anaesthetic is used to numb the nasal passages, then , where a small flexible tube with a camera and strobe light is passed through the nose and down the throat to view the larynx and record vocal cord movements.
- Thyroid scan (a special x-ray of the thyroid following an injection of radioactive material).
Test results can take a few days to come back.
Treatment for throat cancer
Treatment depends on the size, type and location of the cancer and whether it has spread. It can include:
- – the tumour is surgically removed. This may require the partial or total removal of the thyroid, tissue or muscle, or the entire larynx (laryngectomy) or tongue (glossectomy), depending on the location and size of the tumour. Nearby lymph glands may also need to be removed if the cancer has spread.
- – small, precise doses of radiation target and destroy cancer cells.
- – the use of cancer-killing drugs, often in combination with radiotherapy. Chemotherapy can be helpful in controlling cancers that have spread (metastases) because the whole body is treated.
- Multi-modal treatments – surgery on larger tumours may be followed with radiation therapy. Chemo-radiotherapy may also be used.
- Long term monitoring – this may include regular examinations and x-rays to make sure the cancer hasn’t come back.
- Ongoing care – this may include , regular medical follow-up and counselling.
All treatments have side effects. These will vary depending on the type of treatment you are having. Many side effects are temporary, but some may be permanent. Your doctor will explain all the possible side effects before your treatment begins.
When throat cancer can’t be cured
If your throat cancer has spread to other parts of the body and it is not possible to cure it by surgery, your doctor may still recommend treatment.
Treatment for control of cancer may include:
Treatment may help to relieve symptoms – might make you feel better and may allow you to live longer.
Palliative care for throat cancer
You may hear your doctor call your treatment ''. This treatment is not just for people nearing the end of their lives and is designed to manage symptoms rather than cure. The goal is to improve your quality of life and that of your family, friends and carers.
Reducing your risk of throat cancer
Regularly attending your doctor and dentist for check-ups, and flagging any changes to your throat and neck is important.
You can reduce your risk of throat cancer by:
- – find out more about .
- Reducing your intake.
- – including plenty of non-starchy vegetables and fruit (which are thought to help lower the risk of cancers of the oropharynx and larynx).
- – using , and dental dams on vulvas and anuses.
- – the vaccine is available for free to all Victorian adolescents in year 7 of secondary school (aged 12 to 13 years). The vaccine can significantly reduce the chances of developing HPV-related illnesses (including cervical and oropharyngeal cancers).
Following this advice doesn’t mean that you will never get throat cancer, but it can reduce your risk, and has other health benefits too.