Throat cancer: Cancer in the throat, vocal cords or tonsils

Throat cancer is an uncontrolled growth of harmful cells in parts of the throat. This form of cancer arises in the pharynx, the vocal cords or the tonsils. The cause of this is not known, but smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, gastroesophageal reflux and some environmental factors and conditions are associated with throat cancer. Swallowing problems, a change in voice and coughing up blood are some common signs of throat cancer. The treatment usually consists of surgical removal of the tumor, radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are crucial to improving survival rates. Finally, the patient addresses the risk factors if possible to reduce the risk of cancer in the throat.

  • Causes: Cancer in the throat, vocal cords or tonsils
  • Types of throat cancer
  • Risk factors of pharyngeal cancer
  • Diseases
  • Environmental factors
  • Symptoms: Difficulty swallowing and sore throat
  • Diagnosis and examinations
  • Therapy
  • Prognosis
  • Complications of malignant tumor in the throat
  • Prevention


Causes: Cancer in the throat, vocal cords or tonsils

Many types of throat cancer start as squamous cell carcinoma. The cancer then starts in the squamous (flat) cells that line the throat (pharyngeal cancer). Basically this is a form of skin cancer, which develops into throat cancer when the skin around the throat is affected. The vocal cord is located just below the throat and this is also where throat cancer (laryngeal cancer) may develop. Throat cancer sometimes also affects the epiglottis. Tonsil cancer, another form of throat cancer, affects the tonsils, which are located at the back of the throat. In throat cancer, a mutation (genetic change) causes uncontrolled cell growth in the throat. Abnormal cells in the throat then multiply and continue to live. This results in a swelling or lump in the throat. Cancer may develop in many parts of the throat. The specific cause of throat cancer is not known (October 2020).

Types of throat cancer

Throat cancer has various types. These depend on the location where the cancer starts.

  • Glottic cancer starts in the vocal cords.
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer (laryngopharyngeal cancer) begins in the hypopharynx (laryngopharynx) (the lower part of the throat, just above the esophagus and trachea).
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer starts in the nasopharynx (the part of the throat just behind the nose).
  • Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the oropharynx (the part of the throat directly behind the mouth that contains the tonsils)
  • Subglottic cancer starts in the lower part of the vocal cord.
  • Supraglottic cancer begins in the upper part of the larynx; This cancer affects the epiglottis (piece of cartilage that prevents food from entering the trachea).


Risk factors of pharyngeal cancer


A number of conditions increase the risk of developing cancer in the throat such as:

  • a hereditary condition such as Fanconi anemia (deficiency of all blood cells and associated abnormalities)
  • gastroesophageal reflux (symptoms of heartburn), a condition in which acid from the stomach leaks back into the food pipe
  • the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a common virus that is sometimes present in saliva (e.g. causes glandular fever)
  • the human papillomavirus (HPV infection), a sexually transmitted virus

 Smoking increases the risk of throat cancer / Source: Geralt, Pixabay

Environmental factors

Cancer in the throat also develops more quickly when the patient suffers from one or more environmental factors:

  • chemical exposure: asbestos, nickel and sulfuric acid fumes
  • a diet without vegetables and fruit
  • Gender: Men are affected more often than women
  • using tobacco products, including smoking or taking chewing tobacco or snuff
  • age: elderly people (+65 years) are most often affected
  • excessive use of alcohol


Symptoms: Difficulty swallowing and sore throat

Each type of throat cancer manifests itself in a different clinical picture. The symptoms also depend on the stage and location of the cancer. In the initial stages, the symptoms are not or hardly noticeable. However, when symptoms are obvious, they usually worsen quickly. Common early symptoms of cancer of the throat and larynx include:

  • coughing up blood
  • bleeding in the mouth or nosebleed
  • a lump in the neck
  • a prolonged cough or cough
  • a non-healing lump or ulcer
  • wheezing (stridor), breathing problems or shortness of breath
  • a swelling of the eyes, a swelling of the jaw, or a swelling of the neck
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • headache
  • a sore throat
  • unexplained weight loss
  • earache
  • ringing in the ears (tinnitus aurium
  • red or white spots on the lining of the throat
  • swallowing pain
  • swallowing problems
  • voice changes, such as hoarseness or not speaking clearly
  • fatigue/cancer fatigue

These symptoms are sometimes also due to less serious conditions. However, it is important that a doctor checks the symptoms to rule out a form of throat cancer.

Diagnosis and examinations

It is crucial to get an early diagnosis of throat cancer because this increases the chances of survival. The doctor first asks the patient about the symptoms. It is possible to view the tumor in the pharynx via laryngoscopy. A sample of throat tissue (biopsy) is also needed to ensure the diagnosis of throat cancer. Other imaging tests can be used to visualize the extent of the cancer and detect the cancer stage. This is necessary to draw up a good treatment plan. The patient will receive the following possible tests: an X-ray, a CT scan, an MRI scan and/or a PET scan.


The treatment of throat cancer depends on the location of cancer, the stage of the cancer, and the general health of the patient receiving the treatment. The doctor usually uses a combination of surgery to remove the cancer, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and/or targeted therapy.


Thanks to prompt treatment, many patients have a good chance of being cured of throat cancer. However, the prognosis depends on the cancer stage and the area affected. The five-year survival rate is approximately sixty percent. The patient visits the doctor every two months for a check-up visit. As the patient’s health improves, the frequency of follow-up visits decreases. Thanks to these patient follow-up visits, the doctor is able to learn about and treat any persistent symptoms. The doctor also checks whether the cancer does not return. Throat cancer recurs in approximately one in five patients within the first three years after treatment.

Complications of malignant tumor in the throat

Certain cancer treatments cause unwanted effects. The most common complications of cancer treatment include:

  • memory problems
  • neck pain
  • neck stiffness
  • pain (dull, aching, sharp, persistent or intermittent)
  • damage to nerves (unpleasant sensations and noticeable changes in the senses such as numbness, tingling, burning sensations (burning throat), weakness, etc.).
  • swallowing problems
  • speech problems
  • fatigue
  • nutritional problems

When nerve damage occurs, it is important to take precautions such as removing carpets to prevent falls , installing handrails in the bathroom, installing non-slip mats in the bath or shower and wearing sturdy shoes. Caution is also required in the kitchen (use potholders, be careful when using sharp objects, get help to check the temperature, etc.).Accupuncture, meditation, massage and relaxation techniques also alleviate many side effects of the treatments.Eating a healthy diet is important / Source: Jill111, Pixabay


Preventing throat cancer is not possible, but a healthy lifestyle does reduce the risk:

  • limited or no alcohol consumption
  • eat a healthy and balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables
  • practicing safe sexual intercourse (preventing HPV infection
  • quit smoking or don’t start smoking


read more

  • Sore Throat: Causes of Sore Throat (Sore Throat)
  • Vocal cord disorders: Disorders of vocal cords
  • Throat ulcers: Ulcer in throat, esophagus or vocal cords with pain
  • Tonsil cancer (tonsil cancer): Causes and treatment
  • Pain when swallowing (odynophagia): Causes of pain when swallowing