Cancer isn’t something you can self-diagnose. But it is certainly something you may worry about; you wouldn’t be the first to lose some sleep wondering whether your sore throat is due to allergies or something more serious.
The truth is that only a doctor will be able to accurately diagnose your symptoms. If you think you might be experiencing the early symptoms of throat cancer, it’s essential to talk to your doctor.
What is throat cancer?
Throat cancer is something of a general term that refers to a collection of cancers that can appear in various areas of your throat.
There are some similarities between many of these cancers. There are thin, flat cells that line your throat called squamous cells. Usually, throat cancers will begin in these cells, and the resulting cancer becomes known as a squamous cell carcinoma.
There are two types of these cancers:
- Pharyngeal cancer: These cancers begin in your pharynx, which is the tissue behind your mouth, into your throat, and behind your nose.
- Laryngeal cancer: This type is less common. It’s a cancer of your larynx–or voice box.
Types of pharyngeal cancer
Pharyngeal cancer is usually broken up into three different subtypes, depending on where it is located:
Hypopharyngeal: This type of cancer begins in the bottom of the throat.
Oropharyngeal: As the syllable “oro” may imply, oropharyngeal cancer begins in the middle of the throat, including the back of the tongue and parts of the roof of your mouth. This is the most common form of pharyngeal cancer.
Nasopharyngeal: This cancer begins near the top of your throat, just behind the nose.
What are the symptoms of throat cancer?
Your physician will be able to tell you the primary differences between all of these cancers and what they might mean in terms of treatment and prognosis. If you’re thinking about scheduling an appointment with your physician, however, you’re probably wondering what symptoms look like and what they might mean. The possible symptoms of throat cancer could include:
- Sore throat, especially if it’s persistent.
- A lump in your neck.
- Red or white patches in your throat.
- Difficulty swallowing, especially if it’s persistent.
- Hearing loss in one ear.
- Tinnitus in one ear.
- Persistent ear infections.
- Pain behind your nose or in your throat.
- Hoarse voice, especially if it’s persistent.
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck.
Risk factors for throat cancers
Unfortunately, there’s nothing in these symptoms that is entirely unique to throat cancer.
Hearing loss and tinnitus, for example, are incredibly common symptoms of conditions that have nothing to do with cancer.
That’s why it’s useful to think about risk factors at the same time you’re thinking about symptoms. The following can dramatically increase your risk of developing throat cancer:
- Smoking tobacco or using chewing tobacco: These activities have been linked to high rates of throat cancer (in addition to other cancers).
- Heavy alcohol use.
- Acid reflux, or a type of acid reflux known as GERD.
- HPV (human papillomavirus) infections.
- Nutritional issues, such as poor nutrition or malnutrition.
The presence of these risk factors or a family history of throat cancer can be a strong indication that you should get checked out by a physician.
How is throat cancer diagnosed?
Physicians may use one of several methods to help diagnose a possible throat cancer. Your doctor may biopsy suspect tissue or order imaging scans of various kinds (such as X-Rays or CT scans). In some cases, endoscopy will be used to let doctors get a better look at what’s happening in your throat. (An endoscopy may be performed under general anesthesia.)
Your physician will be able to determine which tests and diagnostics are required, if any, in your case.
What happens after diagnosis?
What happens after the diagnosis will depend significantly on what your physician finds. In many cases, what you thought was suspect will turn out to be quite benign. In other cases, your physician may find something more serious.
If it turns out you are diagnosed with throat cancer, early detection is critical. Some types of throat cancer have a relatively good 5-year survival rate–so treatment can save your life.
But the chances of a positive outcome increase the earlier your cancer is detected. So if you think you or a loved one is experiencing throat cancer symptoms, make an appointment with your physician today.