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Throat Cancer

Cancers that involve the throat, base of the tongue, tonsil, pharynx, or tube that extends from the nasal passages to the mouth to the esophagus and sinus are called oropharyngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers.

Risk factors for developing throat cancer may include:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Drinking maté, a stimulant drink common in South America
  • Chewing betel quid, a stimulant commonly used in parts of Asia
  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV)

Symptoms of throat cancer may include:

  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Cough
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Ear pain
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat or neck
  • Advanced tumors may invade the voice box, causing hoarseness or breathing difficulty
  • Bleeding from the throat or blood-tinged sputum

In making a diagnosis of throat cancer, your doctor will start by recording your medical history, asking about any symptoms you may be experiencing and conducting a thorough physical examination. Your doctor may also may recommend one or more of the following diagnostic tests:

  • Endoscopy — This test is performed in the operating room with general anesthesia to determine the extent of the tumor. During the procedure, the upper portion of the gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract are visualized with endoscopes, which are long, thin and flexible tubes equipped with a tiny video camera and light on the end. The endoscope is used to look at areas in the throat and respiratory tract that cannot be seen during a physical exam. Other areas examined include the esophagus, trachea and bronchi of the lungs.

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Surgery

Before having surgery, your doctor will discuss the procedure with you in detail and discuss any possible side effects.

If the tumor is small and localized, surgery will often successfully remove the tumor with few side effects. However, if the tumor is advanced and has spread to surrounding areas, surgery will be more extensive and may involve the removal of parts of your throat, mouth, jaw or voice box. In these cases, your ability to speak, chew, swallow and breathe may be affected.

Reconstructive surgery can help restore your appearance and rehabilitate speech and swallowing function. Prosthetic devices in your mouth may replace removed portions of your teeth, gums and jaw. In more advanced cases, you may need to use tubes for feeding and breathing and an artificial voice aid for speaking.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.