Throat cancer is relatively uncommon when compared to other cancers. The National Cancer Institute estimates 1.1 percent of adults will be diagnosed with pharyngeal cancer within their lifetime. An estimated 0.4 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with laryngeal cancer within their lifetime.
Recognizing potential signs of throat cancer
It can be difficult to detect throat cancer in its early stages. Common signs and symptoms of throat cancer include:
- a change in your voice
- trouble swallowing (dysphagia)
- weight loss
- sore throat
- constant need to clear your throat
- persistent cough (may cough up blood)
- swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- ear pain
Make a doctor’s appointment if you experience any of these symptoms and they do not improve for a duration exceeding two to three weeks.
Causes and risk factors for throat cancer
Men are more likely to develop throat cancer than women. Certain lifestyle habits increase the risk of developing cancer of the throat. These include:
- excessive alcohol consumption
- vitamin A deficiency
- exposure to asbestos
- poor dental hygiene
There is also a connection between throat cancer and certain types of human papillomavirus infections (HPV). This is a sexually transmitted virus. The Cancer Treatment Centers of America say HPV infection is a risk factor for both cervical cancers in women and throat cancer.
Throat cancer has also been linked to other types of cancers. In fact, some people diagnosed with throat cancer are diagnosed with esophageal, lung, or bladder cancer at the same time. This is typically because cancers often have the same risk factors, or because cancer that begins in one part of the body can spread throughout the body in time.
Diagnosing throat cancer
At your appointment, your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms such as a sore throat, hoarseness, and persistent cough with no improvement and no other explanation, they may suspect throat cancer.
To check for throat cancer, your doctor will perform a laryngoscopy or will refer you to a specialist who is trained to do these procedures. This procedure gives your doctor a closer view of your throat.
After you’re given a local anesthetic, your doctor inserts a long flexible tube down your throat, and uses a light and a mirror to examine your throat. If this test reveals abnormalities, your doctor may take a tissue sample from your throat (biopsy) and test the sample for cancer.