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Throat cancer symptoms

The signs and symptoms of throat cancer may be difficult to identify in the early stages of the disease. Many symptoms associated with throat cancer, such as a sore throat or hoarseness, are the same as those that may accompany a cold.

Early warning signs of throat cancer

The most common early warning sign of throat cancer is a persistent sore throat. If you have a sore throat lasts for more than two weeks, the American Cancer Society recommends you see a doctor immediately.

Advanced symptoms of throat cancer

The three main types of throat cancer—laryngeal, hypopharyngeal and oropharyngeal, which includes oral cancers—share many common symptoms. Many symptoms of throat cancer do not develop in the early stages of the disease. Signs of throat cancer may first be found by a dentist or doctor treating another disease or condition. Common symptoms of throat cancer include:

  • Persistent cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A lump in the mouth, throat or neck
  • Hoarseness or other voice changes
  • Ear or jaw pain
  • White patches or sores in the mouth or throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headaches
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Swelling of the eyes, jaw, throat or neck
  • Bleeding in the mouth or nose

Some symptoms of throat cancer are specific to certain areas of the body. For instance, voice changes may be a sign of laryngeal (voice box) cancer, but they would rarely indicate cancer of the pharynx.

Metastatic throat cancer

Throat cancer may spread locally to the lips, mouth or nearby lymph nodes. Throat cancer that has spread to distant parts of the body is called metastatic throat cancer, which is most often found in the lungs, bones and/or distant lymph nodes.

The symptoms of metastatic throat cancer may depend on the part of the body to which the cancer has spread. For instance:

  • If the cancer has spread to the lungs, symptoms may include difficulty breathing or coughing up blood.
  • If the cancer has spread to the bones, symptoms may include bone or joint pain or fractures.

Learn more about metastasis

Diagnosing and treating throat cancer

An array of tests may be used to diagnose throat cancer. Once a diagnosis is determined, several treatment options are available to treat the disease.Tools used to diagnose throat cancer include:

Biopsy: A sample of tissue may be removed to look for the presence of cancerous cells. The types of biopsies performed may include an incisional biopsy or a fine-needle aspiration.

Imaging tests: Tests that may be performed to diagnose throat cancer include various imaging tests, such as a CT scan, barium swallow, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or positron emission tomography (PET).

Scoping procedures: Several diagnostic procedures involve inserting a scope into the nose or mouth to examine the throat. These tests include panendoscopy, laryngoscopy or pharyngoscopy.

Learn more about diagnostic procedures for throat cancer

Treatment options of throat cancer

Treatment for throat cancer may depend on many factors, including the specific type of cancer, where it is located and its stage. Treatment options include:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted therapy

Treatment for metastatic throat cancer may depend on where the cancer has spread and may include chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Some treatments for metastatic cancer may be considered palliative and are intended to ease symptoms and improve quality of life.

Learn more about treatment options for throat cancer

Managing symptoms and side effects

The symptoms of throat cancer and side effects of treatment may cause pain and discomfort that impact your quality of life. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our cancer experts combine conventional treatments with supportive care services to help manage symptoms and side effects, help you stay strong and maintain your treatment schedule. Supportive care services for throat cancer may include:

  • Pain management
  • Nutritional support
  • Mind-body support
  • Spiritual support

Learn more about integrative care

Get expert advice and care

Understanding when symptoms of throat cancer are a sign of something serious and either diagnosing the disease or confirming a previous diagnosis require expertise from professionals trained and experienced in treating throat cancer. At CTCA®, our throat cancer experts treat all stages of the disease.  

Find a cancer expert

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