Throat Cancer Symptoms and Causes Explained

There are three main types of the disease.

Understanding throat cancer can be confusing for patients and their loved ones, partly due to the fact that "throat cancer" isn't a recognised medical term used by doctors.

According to Cancer Research UK, pharynx is the medical name for the throat and it is made up of three parts: the nasopharynx, the oropharynx and the hypopharynx.

Each section of the pharynx can develop cancer, with symptoms and treatment for each being slightly different.

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Nasopharyngeal Cancer

The nasopharynx is the upper area of the throat which connects the back of the nose to the back of the palate.

According to Cancer Research UK, symptoms include:

  • A lump or growth anywhere in the neck area that does not go away after three weeks - this may be the only sign you have

  • Hearing loss – usually on one side only

  • Tinnitus - a ringing in the ears

  • Fluid collection in the ear

  • Blocked or stuffy nose – particularly if only blocked on one side

  • Blood stained discharge from the nose

  • Headache

  • Double vision

  • Numbness of the lower part of your face

  • Difficulty with swallowing

  • Changes in voice, such as hoarseness

According to the NHS, the exact cause is unknown, but it is thought that being of south Chinese or north African descent, having a diet very high in salt-cured meats and fish, having a job where you're regularly exposed to hardwood dust and being exposed to the human papilloma virus (HPV) may increase your risk.

In most cases the disease is treated with a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Oropharyngeal Cancer

The oropharynx is located in the middle section of the throat and includes the soft palate, the base of the tongue and back wall of the throat.

According to Macmillan Cancer Support, the first symptom of oropharynx cancer is usually a painless swelling or lump in the neck.

Other common symptoms include:

  • a sore throat or tongue
  • earache

  • difficulty swallowing or moving your mouth and jaw

  • changes in your voice

  • bad breath

  • unexplained weight loss

Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol or smoking is thought to increase your risk of developing oropharyngeal cancer, with the risk becoming even higher if you do both. The disease is also linked to exposure to HPV and poor diet.

Treatments include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Hypopharyngeal Cancer

The hypopharynx connects the oropharynx and nasopharynx to the start of the food pipe and the windpipe via the voice box.

According to the Throat Cancer Foundation, common symptoms of the disease include:

  • swollen lymph nodes - usually the first sign patients notice

  • persistent sore throat

  • pain that radiates from the throat to ears

  • difficulty swallowing

  • hoarseness

As with other types of cancer that occur in the throat, poor diet, HPV exposure, smoking and excessive drinking are thought to increase your risk.

Again, treatment usually includes surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy

To find out more about cancers that are commonly referred to as throat cancer, visit Cancer Research UK.

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