Is Throat Cancer a Head and Neck Cancer?

Medically Reviewed on 5/17/2022
Is throat cancer a head and neck cancer?
12,000 persons in the United States are diagnosed with throat cancer each year.

Yes, throat cancer is a type of head and neck cancer. The throat is made up of the oropharynx, hypopharynx, nasopharynx, and larynx. Throat cancer is diagnosed if cancer cells are identified in one or more of these sections of the throat.

Throat cancer is classified as pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer depending on which region of the throat is afflicted.

  • Pharyngeal cancer is a kind of cancer that affects the pharynx, a thin tube that begins at your nose and ends at the beginning of the esophagus and trachea.
  • Laryngeal carcinoma is a kind of cancer that affects the larynx.

2 forms of throat cancer

  1. Squamous cell carcinoma
    • This form of throat cancer grows in the thin, flat cells that line most of the throat.
    • They are the most frequent kind of laryngeal cancer. Squamous cell carcinomas account for 90 percent of all instances of throat cancer.
  2. Adenocarcinoma
    • This form of throat cancer starts in the glandular cells of the throat, glandular tissues, or secretory cells.
    • It is frequently associated with stomach, vaginal, and cervical cancers although it could be discovered in the neck.

3 types of pharyngeal cancer

  1. Nasopharynx cancer: In the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
  2. Oropharynx cancer: In the middle part of the throat behind the tongue.
  3. Hypopharynx cancer: In the bottom part of the throat above the esophagus.

3 types of laryngeal cancer

  1. Glottic cancer: Cancer of the vocal cords. Comprises 59 percent of throat cancers.
  2. Supraglottic cancer: Begins in the upper portion of the larynx and includes cancer that affects the epiglottis, which is a piece of cartilage that blocks food from going into your trachea. Supraglottic cancer comprises just 40 percent of throat cancers.
  3. Subglottic cancer: Forms in the region below the vocal cords and accounts for just one percent of throat cancer. Most subglottic masses are extension from glottic carcinomas.

Knowing the facts about throat cancers, their symptoms, and risk factors will help prevent and monitor signs.

11 signs and symptoms of throat cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, a persistent sore throat that lasts two weeks or longer is a warning indication that should be reported to your healthcare physician or otolaryngologist immediately.

Other indicators of cancer include:

  1. Persistent cough
  2. Change in voice (hoarseness of voice)
  3. Unexplained and significant weight loss
  4. Trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
  5. Pain in the jaw or ear
  6. White or red patches or sores in the mouth that do not heal
  7. Nose bleeds
  8. Headaches
  9. Swelling or lumps anywhere in the head or neck area
  10. Numbness in the mouth or tongue
  11. Continual nasal congestion

Unfortunately, untreated throat cancer can spread to other regions of the body, such as the lymph nodes, lungs, and bones. More severe symptoms, such as bone pain or coughing up blood, may suggest that cancer has spread from the throat.

6 possible risk factors for throat cancer

There is no convincing explanation for the etiology of throat cancer. However, some variables might put you at risk for the dreadful medical disease. Throat cancer develops when cells in your throat get genetic abnormalities. These mutations allow cells to expand uncontrollably and live. The collecting cells in your neck might lead to the formation of a tumor.

It is unclear what causes the mutation that leads to throat cancer; however, certain factors may increase your risk, such as:

  1. Tobacco use, including smoking and chewing tobacco
  2. Excessive alcohol use
  3. Viral infections, including human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr virus
  4. A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
  5. Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  6. Exposure to toxic substances at work

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that raises the risk of some forms of throat cancer. HPV has been associated with cancers of the soft palate, tonsils, back of the tongue, and the side and back walls of the throat.

What are the treatment options for throat cancer?

Treatment for throat cancer is determined by the stage at which it is discovered.

  • If a tumor is small, surgery to remove it from the body may be recommended.
  • If a tumor is large but doctors believe it can still be removed, surgery may be preceded by radiation to shrink the tumor.

Following surgery, radiation and chemotherapy could be used to destroy any leftover malignant cells. Targeted treatment may be used to treat throat cancer.

Treatment approaches may include, either alone or in combination, the following:

  • Tumor removal surgery: Saving the larynx to retain speech and swallowing is a major consideration while treating throat cancer. Depending on how advanced the cancer is and where it develops in your neck, your doctors may propose surgical removal of all or part of the diseased throat. Some throat cancers are treatable with less invasive methods. Minimally invasive treatments are often associated with reduced discomfort and quicker recovery durations.
    • Among these techniques are the following:
      • Transoral robotic surgery (TORS): TORS allows head and neck surgeons to remove difficult-to-reach cancers through the mouth by using extremely small instruments coupled to a robotic arm.
      • Endoscopic tumor removal: Surgeons use a thin, flexible tube (an endoscope) to view inside the body and remove cancers without making significant incisions.
      • Radiation therapy: Typically, intensity-modulated radiation therapy is used to treat throat cancer. This type of radiation treatment uses three-dimensional computed tomography imaging to assess the shape of the tumor and then accurately direct and administer high doses of radiation to the tumor.
  • Chemotherapy:
    • Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumor in the following ways:
      • In combination with radiation therapy
      • For patients with metastatic disease
  • Photoimmunotherapy (PIT):
    • If your head and neck cancer is not responding to radiation or chemotherapy or surgery is not an option because the tumor is too difficult to reach, photoimmunotherapy (PIT) is an investigational treatment, which is now in clinical studies.
    • It combines the capacity of the immune system and laser energy to accurately target cancer cells and destroy them. It provides incredibly precise laser beams that attach to cancer and begin destroying it almost instantly.
  • Reconstructive surgery:
    • Following tumor removal surgery, you may require reconstruction surgery to restore function in the regions where the tumor was removed.
    • Plastic surgeons that specialize in reconstructive treatments for the jaw, face, eyes, sinuses, and throat undertake reconstruction surgery.
    • Doctors take tissue from other regions of the body to reconstruct sections, which were harmed by the tumor and the procedure to remove it, using modern microvascular methods.
  • Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation is crucial because the tumor or the procedure to remove it might impair the ability to speak, swallow or eat.
    • You may be referred for one or more of the following:
      • Physical therapy
      • Occupational therapy
      • Speech therapy
      • Dietary consulting
      • Assist with taking care of a stoma, which is a hole in the throat for breathing after the larynx has been surgically removed

What is the prognosis of throat cancer?

The prognosis is substantially better if throat cancer is detected early. Although patients in the early stages of throat cancer can be treated with surgery or radiation therapy, many must learn new methods to speak.

Patients with throat cancer are at risk of getting other malignancies of the mouth, throat, or esophagus. Hence, follow-up exams are so important. According to the American Cancer Society, about 12,000 persons in the United States are diagnosed with throat cancer each year. Early staging improves five-year survival chances.

Consult your doctor straight away if you have any symptoms that may be suggestive of throat cancer.

Medically Reviewed on 5/17/2022
Image Source: iStock Image

WebMD. What You Need to Know About Throat Cancer.

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Throat Cancer Symptoms & Signs.

Better Health. Throat cancer.