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Throat or larynx cancer

Vocal cord cancer; Throat cancer; Laryngeal cancer; Cancer of the glottis; Cancer of oropharynx or hypopharynx; Cancer of the tonsils; Cancer of the base of the tongue

Throat cancer is cancer of the vocal cords, larynx (voice box), or other areas of the throat.

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Throat anatomy
Oropharynx

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Cancer of the throat or larynx

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Causes

People who smoke or use tobacco are at risk of developing throat cancer. Drinking too much alcohol over a long time also increases risk. Smoking and drinking alcohol combined lead to an increased risk for throat cancer.

Most throat cancers develop in adults older than 50. Men are more likely than women to develop throat cancer.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection (the same virus that causes genital warts) account for a larger number of oral cancers than in the past. One type of HPV, type 16 or HPV-16, is much more commonly associated with almost all oral cancers.

Symptoms

Symptoms of throat cancer include any of the following:

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will perform a physical exam. This may show a lump on the outside of the neck.

The provider may look in your throat or nose using a flexible tube with a small camera at the end.

Other tests that may be ordered include:

Treatment

The goal of treatment is to completely remove the cancer and prevent it from spreading to other parts of the body.

When the tumor is small, either surgery or radiation therapy alone can be used to remove the tumor.

When the tumor is larger or has spread to lymph nodes in the neck, a combination of radiation and chemotherapy is often used to save the voice box (vocal cords). If this is not possible, the voice box is removed. This surgery is called a laryngectomy.

Depending on what type of treatment you require, supportive treatments that may be needed include:

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you not feel alone.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Throat cancers may be cured when detected early. If the cancer has not spread (metastasized) to surrounding tissues or lymph nodes in the neck, about one half of patients can be cured. If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes and parts of the body outside the head and neck, the cancer is not curable. Treatment is aimed at prolonging and improving quality of life.

It is possible but not fully proven that cancers which test positive for HPV may have better outlooks. Also, people who smoked for less than 10 years may do better. 

After treatment, therapy is needed to help with speech and swallowing. If the person is not able to swallow, a feeding tube will be needed.

The recurrence risk in throat cancer is highest during the first 2 to 3 years of diagnosis.

Regular follow-up after the diagnosis and treatment is very important to increase the chances of survival.

Possible Complications

Complications of this type of cancer may include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your provider if:

Prevention

Do not smoke or use other tobacco. Limit or avoid alcohol use.

HPV vaccines recommended for children and young adults target HPV subtypes most likely to cause some head and neck cancers. They have been shown to prevent most oral HPV infections. It is not clear yet whether they also are able to prevent throat or larynx cancers.

Related Information

Alcohol use and safe drinking
Breathing difficulty
Hoarseness
Metastasis
Laryngectomy
Dry mouth during cancer treatment
Mouth and neck radiation - discharge
Swallowing problems

References

Armstrong WB, Vokes DE, Verma SP. Malignant tumors of the larynx. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 106.

Fakhry C, Gourin CG. Human papillomavirus and the epidemiology of head and neck cancer. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund V, et al, eds. Cummings Otolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 75.

Garden AS, Beadle BM, Morrison WH. Larynx and hypopharynx cancer. In: Gunderson LL, Tepper JE, eds. Clinical Radiation Oncology. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 35.

Lorenz RR, Couch ME, Burkey BB. Head and neck. In: Townsend CM Jr, Beauchamp RD, Evers BM, Mattox KL, eds. Sabiston Textbook of Surgery: The Biological Basis of Modern Surgical Practice. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:chap 33.

National Cancer Institute website. Nasopharyngeal cancer treatment (adult) (PDQ) - health professional version. www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/hp/adult/nasopharyngeal-treatment-pdq. Updated January 12, 2018. Accessed January 31, 2018.

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Review Date: 9/29/2018  

Reviewed By: Josef Shargorodsky, MD, MPH, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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