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About throat cancer

Throat cancer develops at the back of the mouth, tonsils, voice box, base of the tongue, sinus and nasal cavities, salivary glands, soft palate and lymph nodes in the neck. According to the Ameircan Cancer Society, 17,950 people in the United States will develop cancer of the pharynx in 2020, while 12,370 will develop cancer of the larynx.

The throat forms the entryway to the digestive and respiratory systems. It is a small, but complicated part of the body that connects the nose and mouth to the esophagus, which leads to the stomach, and windpipe, which connects to the lungs. The throat allows us to swallow, breathe and speak. The primary sections of the throat include:

Pharynx: The main area of the throat behind the mouth and above the esophagus is divided into three parts:

  • The oropharynx includes the base of the tongue, the soft palate and the tonsils.
  • The nasopharynx is the upper part of the throat behind the nose, above the soft part of the palate.
  • The hypopharynx, also called the laryngopharynx, sits at the bottom of the throat, at the entrance to the esophagus.

Larynx: The voice box is made up of three parts:

  • The glottis contains the vocal cords.
  • The supraglottis is the area above the vocal cords, including the epiglottis, the flap that keeps food out of the respiratory system.
  • The subglottis is the area between the vocal chords and the trachea.

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Throat cancer types

There are three main types of throat cancer:

Oropharyngeal cancer forms in the back and side walls of the throat, the soft palate, tonsils and base of the tongue.

Laryngeal cancer forms in the larynx.

Hypopharyngeal cancer forms in the bottom part of the throat.

Learn more about the types of throat cancer

Who gets throat cancer?

Statistics for oropharyngeal and oral cancers are often combined. The NCI estimates that about 51,000 Americans a year will develop those cancers, and that more than 13,000 people will develop cancer in the larynx annually. According to the NCI:

  • Men are at a significantly higher risk than women of developing throat tumors. Men are five times more likely to develop cancer of the larynx and three times more likely to develop oral or oropharyngeal tumors.
  • African American men are at the highest risk of developing cancer of the larynx.
  • The risk of throat cancer jumps significantly with age.
Throat cancer risk factors

More than 70 percent of all oropharyngeal cancers are linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV), which may be spread during oral sex, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which adds that HPV is not a known risk factor for cancer of the larynx.

Other risk factors for throat cancer include tobacco smoking, alcohol use and gastroesophageal reflux disease.

Many throat cancer patients have a high risk of developing a secondary cancer, typically in the larynx, esophagus or lungs. After treatment ends, some patients may also develop tumors in the lungs, mouth, throat or other nearby area.

Learn more about throat cancer risk factors

How to check for throat cancer

Oropharyngeal cancers or pre-cancerous conditions in the oropharynx may be detected early during an annual physical with a doctor, during regular dental check-ups or with periodical self-examinations. Sores in the mouth or throat, lumps or white patches may be early signs of oropharyngeal cancer.

Screening for other types of throat cancer may be more difficult. However, these cancers may be detected early by visiting a doctor when symptoms develop. Common symptoms of throat cancer include voice changes, a chronic cough, sore throat or other type of throat pain, ear pain, difficulty swallowing, lumps or swelling in the throat or lymph nodes.

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Diagnosing throat cancer

Diagnosing throat cancer often involves procedures that use some type of scope to examine parts of the mouth, nose, neck and upper digestive system. These procedures include:

  • Panendoscopy
  • Laryngoscopy
  • Pharyngoscopy

Other diagnostic procedures include:

  • Biopsy, to obtain a sample of cells or piece of a tumor
  • Imaging tests, including CT scan and MRI

Learn more about diagnostic procedures for throat cancer

Treating throat cancer

Treatment for throat cancer may depend on the type and stage of the disease, among other factors. Treatments options for throat cancer include:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Immunotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery
  • Targeted therapy

Learn more about treatment options for throat cancer

Next topic: What are the risk factors for throat cancer?


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