Throat cancer often develops from squamous cells that are located in the mucosal surface of the larynx, pharynx or mouth. This means that the cancer will develop in a specific type of cell in a layer of cells that line the voicebox, the area of the neck below the chin and above the collarbone and the lining of the mouth. Oral cancers account for approximately 5% of all cancers that develop in the United States. Throat cancers will usually develop around the age of 60 and men are 10 times more likely to develop them than women.
There are an estimated 12,000 new cases diagnosed each year and approximately 3500 individuals who died from their cancer. Treatments of throat cancer will begin with diagnosis in order to give the physician a better handle on the types of treatment protocols which should be order for the best effectiveness possible. In order to diagnose throat cancer a physician may recommend an endoscope, a special lighted scope used to get a close look at the throat during a procedure called endoscopy. A tiny camera is often located at the end of the endoscope that will send images to a computer and video screen your doctor will be watching for abnormalities in your throat.
During endoscopy your physician may remove some tissue samples for testing, called a biopsy. This sample is then sent to a laboratory where a histologist will take a look at the cells and determine if they are cancers or benign. Your doctor may also order imaging tests to determine the extent of the cancer beyond the surface of the throat was voicebox and how far it may or may not have metastasized.
All of this information is compiled together to determine the extent, or stage, of the cancer. This enables the physician should more appropriately recommend treatment options that will be effective against the stage of cancer an individual may is suffering from.
Treatment options will also depend on the health of the individual, stage of the cancer, type of cancer and, ultimately, personal preference of the individual.
Treatment options can include radiation therapy. Throat cancers are particularly sensitive to radiation, so most people will undergo some type of radiation therapy in their treatment. Your physician may recommend external beam radiation or internal radiation, placed with small radioactive seeds and wires inside the body and near the cancer.
In throat cancer that has been found in early stages, radiation therapy may be the only treatment is necessary. For individuals who suffer from more advanced stages, radiation may be combined with chemotherapy and or surgery. In end-stage throat cancer radiation may be use to reduce the signs and symptoms that make an individual more comfortable.
Surgery is another option that can be considered to treat throat cancer, depending upon the location and stage of the tumor. Surgery for early-stage throat cancer is confined to the surface of the throat or vocal cords and can be done during endoscopy. Using the tools of an endoscope the physician can scrape off, cut out or vaporize very superficial cancers.
For smaller tumors, the doctor may recommend removing part of the vocal box that is affected by cancer, leaving as much of the boxes possible in order to enable communication. There may be the option to preserve the ability to speak and breathe normally but, for more extensive tumors, it may be necessary to remove the entire vocal box. In this case, the windpipe is attached to a hole in the neck through which an individual can breathe through a tracheotomy. If the entire larynx, voicebox, is removed, individual will have several options available for restoring speech.
Smaller throat cancers can require removing only part of the throat during surgery. Parts that are removed can be reconstructed in order to allow an individual to swallow food normally. If this type of surgery, pharyngectomy, who usually require the removal of the voicebox as well. If throat cancer has spread to deep within the neck, the lymph nodes, the doctor may recommend surgery to remove them for laboratory testing.
Chemotherapy is the third leg in the treatment protocols used for throat cancer. These are chemical drugs used to kill cancer cells and delivered via an oral or intravenous route. This means that the medications are given using pills or by injecting them into a vein.
By combining chemotherapy and radiation therapy doctors are able to improve the success rate but will also increase the side effects of both treatments. Discuss these side effects with your doctor to determine whether combined treatments will offer benefits that outweigh the risk of the side effects.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: Larry’s Story
University of California San Francisco: Throat Cancer
MD Anderson Cancer Center: Throat Cancer
Cancer Treatment Centers of America: Throat Cancer Treatment
MayoClinic: Throat Cancer