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What is throat cancer?

Throat cancer generally refers to cancers that start in the pharynx or larynx (voice box), but can also refer to cancers that start in the oesophagus (food pipe) or thyroid. Some cancers which begin in the throat area, as well as the tongue, salivary glands, sinuses, nose or ear, are classified as head and neck cancers.

The two main types of cancer that are commonly referred to as throat cancers are pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers - cancer of the pharynx and the larynx.



Throat cancer symptoms

Symptoms for throat cancers can include:

  • throat pain

  • shortness of breath

  • persistent sore throat or cough

  • coughing up blood

  • changes to the voice such as hoarseness

  • difficulties swallowing

  • feeling there is something stuck in the throat

  • lumps in the neck or throat

  • sudden unexplained weight loss.



Causes of throat cancer

Risk factors for throat cancers include:

  • smoking

  • excessive alcohol consumption

  • human papillomavirus (HPV)

  • epstein-barr virus (EBV)

  • poor diet

  • family history of cancer.



Diagnosis of throat cancer

Tests to diagnose pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer may include:

Physical examination

Your doctor will examine your mouth, throat and neck and may insert a gloved finger into your mouth to examine areas that are difficult to see.

Blood tests

Samples may be taken to check your general health.

Biopsy

The doctor will remove a small sample of tissue or cells for examination under a microscope to see if cancer cells are present.

Endoscopy of the larynx

A  thin tube with a light on its end (endoscope) will be inserted through the nose to look for abnormalities in the throat.

Ultrasound

A small device called a transducer is used to send out soundwaves that echo when they hit something dense such as an organ or tumour.

X-rays

You may have a chest x-ray to check your overall health or to see if cancer has spread to the lungs.

CT scan

A CT (computerised tomography) scan uses x-ray beams to create detailed cross-sectional images of inside your body.

MRI scan

A MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan uses magnet and radio waves to create detailed images of the inside of your body.

PET scan

A PET (positron emission tomography) scan combined with a CT scan, is often recommended. Radioactive material is injected into the body to help show cancer cells.



Treatment for throat cancer

Treatment will depend on the size of the cancer, whether it has spread and your overall health

Staging

Tests for throat cancers will confirm if you have cancer and how far it has spread. This is called staging and will help your doctors determine the best treatment options for you. Treatments for throat cancers include surgery, radiation therapy (radiotherapy) and chemotherapy, or a combination of one or more of these.

Surgery

Depending on the size of the tumour, you may be recommended surgery to have it removed. The type of surgery will also depend on the location of the cancer and may involve removing part of the pharynx or the partial or full removal of the larynx, thyroid or tongue.

Radiation therapy (radiotherapy)

After surgery, you may also receive radiation therapy (also known as radiation therapy). In some cases radiotherapy will be the principal treatment type.

Chemotherapy

In some instances, chemotherapy may be required along with radiation, particularly if the tumours are large or the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Chemotherapy may also be used to shrink tumours prior to surgery.

Treatment Team

Depending on your treatment, your treatment team may consist of a number of different health professionals, such as:
  • GP (General Practitioner)- looks after your general health and works with your specialists to coordinate treatment.
  • Ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist- treats disorders of the ear, nose and throat
  • Head and neck surgeon- diagnoses and treats cancers of the head and neck.
  • Oral surgeon- treats disorders of the mouth, face and jaws.
  • Dentist- evaluates and treats the mouth and teeth
  • Radiation oncologist- prescribes and coordinates radiation therapy treatment.
  • Medical oncologist- prescribes and coordinates the course of chemotherapy.
  • Cancer nurses- assist with treatment and provide information and support throughout your treatment.
  • Dietitian- recommends an eating plan to follow while you are in treatment and recovery.
  • Pathologist- examines cells and tissues under a microscope.
  • Physiotherapist/occupational therapist- help with physical and practical problems such as restoring movement and mobility after treatment.
  • Other allied health professionals- such as social workers, pharmacists and counsellors.


Screening for throat cancer

There is currently no national screening program for throat cancers available in Australia.



Preventing throat cancer

Around 60% of pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers in Australia are caused by smoking; around 30% are caused by excess alcohol consumption. So quitting smoking and moderating alcohol consumption will significantly reduce your risk of developing throat cancer.



Prognosis for throat cancer

Your doctor will not be able to predict the exact course of the disease, as it will depend on individual circumstances such as the type of throat cancer you have and how far it has spread, your age, medical history and overall health.



Sources

Understanding Head and Neck Cancers, Cancer Council Australia, © 2019. Last medical review of source booklet: September 2019. 

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW. 

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