Throat Cancer: Summary and Overview
Throat cancers are the cancerous tumors that develop in your voice box (larynx), throat (pharynx), or tonsils. Cancer of the larynx can occur on the glottis (where most laryngeal cancers are found), the supraglottis (the area above the vocal cords that includes the epiglottis), or the subglottis (the area that connects the larynx to the trachea).
Throat cancers can be cured in 90% of patients if detected early. If the cancer has spread to surrounding tissues or lymph nodes in the neck, the cure rate drops to 50 – 60%. If the cancer has metastasized to parts of the body outside the head and neck, the cancer is not curable and treatment is aimed at prolonging and improving quality of life.
Throat Cancer: Causes
- Smoking: The risk of throat cancer increases up to 30 times for smokers or people using chewing tobacco. The heavier the person smokes, the higher the risk. Secondhand smoke is also considered a hazard.
- Alcohol: People who drink alcohol frequently are 6 times more likely to develop mouth or throat cancer. Combining smoking with alcohol can increase the risks even more than either drinking or smoking alone.
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Acid that comes up from the stomach into the esophagus causes heartburn, and this is a common symptom of GERD. People with GERD have an increased risk of developing cancerous tumors in the esophagus.
- Poor Diet: Research also suggests that not getting enough vitamins, i.e. in fruit and veggies, is likely a risk factor.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): The virus that can cause genital warts can also develop into certain cancers. Mothers may pass the virus on to their children when they’re born. It settles in the larynx, developing into growths called laryngeal papillomas later on in life. These growths may develop into cancer.
- Betel Nut: Chewing betel nut, a prevalent practice in India and other parts of South Asia, has been found to result in mucosa carcinoma of the cheeks. Mucosa carcinoma accounts for less than 10% of oral cavity cancers in the United States but is the most common oral cavity cancer in India.
- Toxic Exposure: These risk factors include being exposed to asbestos, wood dust, or many types of chemicals that can increase the chances of cancer.
- Voice overuse: People who use their voices a lot, such as singers, may develop polyps (lumps of tissue).
- Age: This type of cancer is usually detected in people between 50 and 75 years old.
Throat Cancer: Symptoms
The symptoms of throat cancer can be hard to detect in the early stages as they can seem similar to the flu or a common cold. That said, it is important to go to the doctor if you have any new signs of the condition as the cure rate will depend on how early you can catch the cancer. Symptoms include:
- A cough that doesn’t go away.
- Change in your tone of voice or hoarseness.
- Persistent sore throat.
- Swelling of the jaw.
- A painless white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
- Breathing difficulties, or feeling that something is catching in the throat.
- Ear pain (pain from deep in the throat can be felt in the ear).
- Coughing up of blood.
- A painless lump on the lip, in the mouth, or in the throat.
- A sore on the lip or inside the mouth that does not heal.
- Pain or difficulty with chewing or swallowing.
Throat Cancer: Diagnostic Tests
Your doctor will likely do a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms and their severity and duration. If you are considered at risk for throat cancer, your doctor may recommend additional testing to accurately diagnose your condition.
- Laryngoscopy: where a flexible lighted tube (fiberoptic endoscope) is inserted in the voice box with a tiny camera at the end. This is used to check for tumours or polyps in the larynx, mouth, tongue, and neck and other abnormalities.
- Biopsy: If abnormalities are found during laryngoscopy, your doctor may collect a tissue sample (biopsy). The sample is sent to a laboratory for further analysis.
- Imaging Scans: Your doctor may order imaging tests to see the size of the cancer and whether it has spread. Computer tomography (CT) scan; Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan; Positron emission tomography (PET) scan; Occasionally, X-rays and ultrasounds also may be performed.
Throat Cancer: Treatment
Once the cancer has been diagnosed, the next step is to stage it to see how advanced it is. Staging is classified with the Roman numerals, 0-IV. Stage 0 is when the cancer is in its earliest form. It has not invaded the tissue and can be removed from the vocal cords without removing any tissue. IV is the last stage of cancer, and means the cancer has spread to other organs in the body. Since it is incurable, treatment depends on improving quality of life. The cancer stage will determine treatment options.
Radiation: If the cancer is caught in the early stages, it may be possible to treat with radiation alone. This uses high-energy particles, such as X-rays, to deliver radiation to the cancer cells, causing them to die. Radiotherapy is the preferred method whenever possible, because it usually doesn’t affect the quality of the voice and side effects are most often temporary.
Surgery: The type of surgery will depend on the stage of cancer. It can involve removing the whole larynx and surrounding tissues or just part of the larynx, depending on how far the cancer has spread. With partial removal (partial laryngectomy), you will often be able to eat and breathe as you did before the surgery, after healing is complete. Your voice quality may change but you will be able to speak. You may want to work with a speech pathologist to retrain your voice. For larger, more extensive tumors, it may be necessary to remove your entire voice box (total laryngectomy). Your windpipe is then attached to a hole in your throat that connects to the skin and allows you to breathe (tracheostomy). You may not be able to talk after this depending on different surgical techniques. Throat surgery (pharyngectomy) removes part of or all your throat depending on the size of the turmor. Your doctor may be able to reconstruct your throat to allow you to swallow food.
If the surgery is extensive, your doctor may recommend reconstructive surgery for you to help restore your appearance and rehabilitate speech and swallowing function. Prosthetic devices in your mouth may replace removed portions of your teeth, gums and jaw. In more advanced cases, you may need to use tubes for feeding and breathing and an artificial voice aid for speaking.
Chemotherapy: Finally, chemotherapy may be needed if the cancer has spread. It uses chemicals to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is often used along with radiation therapy in treating throat cancers. Certain chemotherapy drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. Chemotherapy circulates throughout the body, more of the body systems are affected by the treatment. And combining chemotherapy and radiation therapy increases the side effects of both treatments. Talk to your doctor about the likely side effects and whether the benefits of the combined treatments will outweigh those effects and the risks.
Natural remedies may help you manage and lessen the symptoms of throat cancer or the side effects of its treatment. Acupuncture, like massage therapy and acupressure, can be an effective tool for reducing the pain of the condition and its treatments.
Meditation is a tool that can help you manage the stress and anxiety of cancer and its treatments. It can also be a tool for pain management, although this function can take some time and practice to master. By learning how to disassociate body and mind, it can help you disconnect from your body, and thus separate yourself from the sensation of pain.
Throat Cancer: Prevention
There’s no proven way to prevent throat cancer from occurring. But there are a number of things that you can do to reduce your risk factor:
- Quit smoking: The risk of throat cancer increases up to 30 times for smokers or people using chewing tobacco. The heavier the person smokes, the higher the risk. Secondhand smoke is also considered a hazard.
- Cut down on alcohol: People who drink alcohol frequently are 6 times more likely to develop mouth or throat cancer. Combining smoking with alcohol can increase the risks even more than either drinking or smoking alone. For women, moderate drinking means one drink a day. For men, it means no more than two drinks a day.
- More Fruit and Veggies: The vitamins and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of throat cancer. Eat at least 5 servings of nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables every day.
- More Vitamin A: A deficiency of vitamin A may be linked to increased throat cancer risk. Eat foods rich in vitamin A (such as liver) or take a vitamin A supplement.
- Beware Toxins and Chemicals: When working with chemicals, whether on the job or around your house, carefully follow the directions. Avoid breathing hazardous chemical fumes. Properly ventilate the room where you’re working and wear a mask over your nose and mouth.
- Get regular cancer screenings: A healthy lifestyle alone cannot prevent development of throat cancer. Other factors, like heredity and viruses, are also linked to the disease. Screenings will ensure you are healthy and catch cancer in its early stages.
Throat Cancer: Conclusion
Throat cancers are the cancerous tumors that develop in your voice box (larynx), throat (pharynx), or tonsils. They are a serious and potentially fatal condition whose cure rate depends on how early they are caught. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. Alternative natural medicines can be used to complement traditional medicines, either to treat the symptoms of the disease or the side effects of conventional treatments