Throat cancer occurs in the hollow tube that begins behind the roof of the mouth and the nose, merges into the windpipe, and turns into the esophagus in the lower neck. Most throat cancers are caused by environmental factors, such as drinking alcohol and using tobacco products, which makes this type of cancer preventable. However, because both patients and doctors often miss the first signs of throat cancer, diagnosis does not typically take place until the cancer has reached an advanced stage. Because of this, it is important for everyone to become aware of the first signs of throat cancer and to seek medical attention for any symptoms as soon as possible.
The first signs of throat cancer vary considerably, which makes the disease difficult to detect and diagnose in early stages. The most commonly experienced early symptoms include a persistent sore throat, a lump in the neck, difficulty swallowing, ear or neck pain, and a change in voice. Raspy speech or hoarseness of voice is typically the first presenting symptom that causes sufferers to seek medical attention, but many people erroneously blame this symptom on a viral infection or allergies. In early stages, throat cancer may appear as white patches or ulcers inside the throat, but some cases are asymptomatic.
Once the first signs of throat cancer have become apparent, thorough examination is necessary to receive an accurate diagnosis by a physician. Throat cancer patients should be seen by an oncologist who specializes in throat cancer, as 10 to 15 percent of those with throat cancer also have a second primary cancer somewhere in their body. Diagnosis generally follows a battery of tests and a complete physical exam.
If the throat cancer is located in the upper section of the throat, diagnosis can usually be made by looking into the mouth. If the cancer is located in the lower part of the throat, an endoscopy is typically needed. Once the cancer is visualized, cells are removed and sent to a lab for analysis. The margins of the cancer are then tattooed to assist in later removal, and scans, such as CT, MRI, ultrasound and PET, are performed to determine if the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes. Staging of the cancer is done only after testing has been completed.
Prevention of throat cancer involves avoiding smoking and smokeless tobacco products, drinking alcohol in moderation and receiving regular examinations by a doctor. Treatment of throat cancer depends on how early the cancer is detected, on the stage of the disease and on the location of the primary cancer. A combination of surgery and radiation is generally required to treat early stages of throat cancer, with advanced stages being more difficult to treat and requiring chemotherapy. Because the first signs of throat cancer are so difficult to detect, more than 70 percent of throat cancer patients have advanced cancers upon diagnosis.
Nonsmokers often believe they are immune to developing throat cancer because of their low-risk status. This often leads to late detection and poor prognosis. Even nonsmokers must report any possible signs and symptoms of throat cancer to their doctor immediately, as throat cancer quickly spreads to surrounding tissue. If symptoms such as hoarseness or sore throat persist for more than two weeks, even when these symptoms follow a viral or bacterial infection, they should be investigated and a biopsy should be performed if another cause is not obvious.
Throat cancer is a significant health threat, but both patients and doctors easily overlook the first signs of throat cancer. Estimates from the American Cancer Society show that roughly 24,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with some stage of throat cancer every year, with half of those cancers occurring in the pharynx. Early detection is crucial to a good prognosis, as throat cancer often quickly spreads to surrounding tissue or metastasizes to other regions of the body. Early detection enables greater treatment options, which makes it essential for anyone at risk of developing throat cancer to be aware of the early signs and symptoms of the disease.