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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Throat Cancer?

written by: AngelicaMD • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 3/18/2011

Cough, voice change and difficulty in swallowing are common symptoms that almost anybody may experience in life, especially when one has a throat infection. But these may also be symptoms of a more serious disease. What are the symptoms of throat cancer and how it is diagnosed?

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    What is Throat Cancer?

    Malignancy or cancer of the throat has been diagnosed in about 25,000 Americans in 2010, and there were around 6,000 deaths attributed to it in the same year. The throat or pharynx is the hollow muscular part that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the windpipe (voice box or larynx) and esophagus (the food pipe). It also includes the tonsils and the epiglottis or the flap of tissue that opens and closes the larynx. Other parts that may be affected include the base of the tongue, the soft palate (at the roof of the mouth) and the back wall of the throat.

    Throat cancer signifies the abnormal growth of cells in one or more of the tissues in the pharynx. This abnormal cell growth, commonly of the squamous cell type, destroys normal cells and can spread to other parts of the body. Depending on the area involved, throat cancer may be further classified as:

    • Nasopharyngeal cancer – involves the upper part of the throat from the back of the nose
    • Oropharyngeal cancer – involves the middle part of the throat, including the back of the tongue and tonsils
    • Hypopharyngeal cancer – involves the lower part of the throat
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    Signs and Symptoms of Throat Cancer

    What are the symptoms of throat cancer? Early stages of the disease may produce symptoms that are distinct to the area involved, but since the throat is made up of different contiguous tissues where eating, swallowing, breathing and speaking may be affected, symptoms may be overlapping or indistinct especially in the later stages. Furthermore, symptoms from infections, trauma, tumors and other conditions may be similar. These are:

    • Coughing that is not associated with a cold and persists for a long time
    • Changes in voice, such as hoarseness that lasts for more than two weeks
    • Difficulty in chewing, swallowing and/or breathing
    • A lump in the throat that doesn’t go away
    • Persistent sore throat
    • Unexplained progressive weight loss
    • Pain that may involve the jaw, throat and the inside of the ear
    • Swelling of the eyes, jaw, throat or neck
    • Unexplained bleeding from the throat, mouth or nose
    • White or red patches or discolorations in the mouth and throat
    • Feeling that food is stuck in the chest, accompanied by hiccups

    Having one or more of these signs and symptoms does not necessarily mean one has cancer. These symptoms may be distinguished from common infections and traumatic causes because they are usually long standing, progressive and do not respond to antibiotic and pain treatment.

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    Diagnosis of Cancer of the Throat

    Initial evaluation of these symptoms involves a review of the patient’s history and physical examination. The doctor may initially perform a laryngoscopy to view the more visible parts of the throat and then proceed with endoscopy to visualize the deeper parts. Endoscopy involves the use of a tiny camera attached to a flexible tube that can take pictures which are viewed in an external monitor. This is done under sedation or anesthesia but the patient may go home after recovery from the effects of anesthesia.

    A tissue biopsy of suspicious cell growth or lumps is taken during endoscopy and this is examined by the laboratory. Confirmation of the diagnosis of cancer of the specific tissue from which the biopsy was taken can then be made.

    The signs and symptoms of pharyngeal or throat cancer are commonly found in people who chew and smoke tobacco, drink alcohol excessively and those who have been exposed to asbestos and HPV infection. Avoidance of these risk factors can help prevent the disease and its complications.

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    References

    CTCA, “Throat Cancer Symptoms", http://www.cancercenter.com/throat-cancer/throat-cancer-symptoms.cfm

    Mayo Clinic, “Throat Cancer", http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/oral-and-throat-cancer/DS00349

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