Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is a disease where cancerous (malignant) cells grow anywhere within the tissues and muscles of the throat. The throat is the tube that carries air, food and water from the mouth and nose to the lungs (through the trachea) and stomach (through the esophagus).

At the Henry Ford Cancer Institute, our experts provide comprehensive, expert care for patients with throat cancer. Our high level of specialization in treating head and neck cancers means that you will receive the latest, most effective treatments available.

Throat Cancer: Expert Care at Henry Ford

Henry Ford’s expert head and neck team works together to ensure you receive an accurate diagnosis and individualized treatment plan. Our specialists have the skills and resources to help you choose the treatment option that meets your unique health needs.

Patients come to Henry Ford because of our specialization in throat cancer, including:

  • Advanced treatments: We perform sophisticated throat cancer surgery and reconstruction, including robot-assisted and minimally invasive procedures. We are one of only a few programs in the United States to offer stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) for head and neck cancers. SBRT targets radiation precisely to spare healthy tissue. Read more about throat cancer treatment.
  • Integrated care: Treating and recovering from throat cancer can be complex, because of the effects on speech and swallowing. Our team of surgeons, medical doctors and therapists take a coordinated approach to your medical care and other concerns that come up during treatment. Meet our team.
  • Patient support: We are here to support you before, during and after treatment. We connect you with others who understand what you are going through, and help you manage the side effects of treatment. Find out more about our patient support services.

Types of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer can occur anywhere along the passage from the area behind the nose to the throat or lungs. The throat is also called the pharynx. The larynx, or voice box, is just below the pharynx.

The type of throat cancer is classified based on where the cancer begins:

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer: Cancer behind the nose or in the top part of the throat (the area called the nasopharynx) is called nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer: The oropharynx is the back of the mouth, where the mouth and throat meet. It includes the base of the tongue, the tonsils and the soft palate (the back of the mouth).
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer: Cancer in the hypopharynx, or the bottom part of the throat (pharynx), is called hypopharyngeal cancer.
  • Laryngeal cancer: Cancer in the vocal cords or voice box (larynx) is called laryngeal cancer. The larynx lets air pass through on the way to the windpipe (trachea) and lungs. A small flap of tissue called the epiglottis keeps food from going into the air passages.

Risk Factors for Throat Cancer

Throat cancers typically develops in adults older than 50. Men are 10 times more likely than women to develop throat cancers.

Most people who are diagnosed with throat cancer have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Using tobacco: The biggest risk for throat cancer is smoking tobacco. Get information about Henry Ford’s tobacco treatment services.
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Exposure to certain viruses: Some viruses appear to increase the risk of throat cancer.
    • HPV (human papillomavirus): HPV is a sexually transmitted disease. It is the same virus that causes most cases of cervical cancer, although physicians diagnose HPV-caused throat cancer in men.
    • Epstein-Barr virus: The risk of nasopharyngeal cancer is higher in people who have had Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis).
  • Hereditary conditions (conditions that biological family members share, that can make certain types of cancer more likely): Plummer-Vinson Syndrome, which can be related to long-term iron-deficiency anemia, may increase the risk of hypopharyngeal cancer. We offer cancer genetics counseling for people who may have these conditions.
  • Having Chinese or other Asian ancestry: Being of Chinese or Asian descent may increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer

Symptoms of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer may not have any noticeable symptoms at first, other than some throat discomfort. Especially if you smoke, if you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to schedule an appointment with an experienced head and neck cancer specialist for an accurate throat cancer diagnosis.

Signs and symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • A lump in the neck
  • Trouble breathing or speaking
  • Hoarseness or voice changes (such as a higher or thinner voice)
  • Painful swallowing, or other throat or neck pain that does not go away
  • Ear pain or ringing in the ears, or trouble hearing
  • Frequent headaches

Throat Cancer Diagnosis at Henry Ford

The first step in throat cancer diagnosis is a physical examination. Your doctor will look for bumps, sores or abnormal areas on your neck, face or head.

To examine parts of the throat that are not easy to see or feel from the outside, a physician who suspects throat cancer may use tests including:

  • Laryngoscopy: Using small mirrors or a tube with a light and camera, we can examine your throat and your larynx (voice box). Your doctor may suggest a numbing spray on the back of the throat first.
  • Panendoscopy: Using an endoscope (a long, flexible tube with a light and camera), we can examine the larynx, esophagus (the tube where food passes from the throat to the stomach), trachea (windpipe) and bronchial tubes (breathing in the lungs). If doctors find a suspected tumor, they can estimate the size and whether it might have spread, and take a biopsy (small tissue sample). For this exam, you usually will be asleep (general anesthesia) in an operating room.
  • Biopsy: A biopsy takes a sample of suspicious cells for laboratory examination. In the lab, scientists can determine if cancer is present and needs treatment.
  • Imaging, such as X-ray, MRI or CT scan: We may order tests to take pictures of the inside of your body. These tests might include a CT (computed tomography) scan, X-rays or MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
  • PET scan or bone scan: To learn whether cancer has spread in your body, we may order a PET (positron emission tomography) scan or a bone scan. These tests use a mild radioactive substance to check the function of your cells and tissues.
  • Barium esophagogram: We can get a closer understanding of the esophagus with this specialized X-ray. You will you drink a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound) to coat the esophagus before doctors take X-rays.

Staging Throat Cancer

To effectively diagnose throat cancer, doctors will identify the cancer’s stage, or the size of the cancer and whether it has spread. The stage helps doctors choose the best treatment option for you. 

The specific staging depends on where in the throat the tumor is located. In general, however, doctors classify throat cancer in these stages:

  • Stage 0: Physicians identify cancer in the throat’s lining, but it has not spread. This is also called carcinoma in situ.
  • Stage I: Cancer has formed in one area of the throat, but it has not spread. If it has spread deeper, the tumor is 2 centimeters (about ½ inch) or smaller.
  • Stage II: The tumor may be larger than 2 centimeters (about ½ inch), and has not spread to the larynx (voice box). Alternatively, a tumor may be stage II if it is found in more than one area of the throat.
  • Stage III: A stage III tumor has spread either into nearby lymph nodes, the larynx, or esophagus.
  • Stage IV: Cancer has spread to other parts of the body. Doctors classify Stage IV tumors as IVA, IVB or IVC, depending on their size and where cancer cells are located.

Options for Treatment

Learn more about the treatment options for head and neck cancers

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