What is Throat cancer?
Abnormal growth of cells in the area of the throat is referred to as throat cancer. Usually, it affects the larynx (voice box) or oropharynx (the middle of the throat).
There are several symptoms of throat cancer that can indicate the condition at an early stage. These symptoms involve a sore throat, pain in the throat and ear, lump in the neck and difficulty in swallowing food etc.
Several treatment options are also available for throat cancer with great success and survival rates. Depending upon the stage of cancer, treatment is planned to get the tumour completely removed from the throat of the patient.
What are the causes of throat cancer?
The main cause of throat cancer could be different for different individuals even though the exact reason is still unknown, there are many risk factors which make someone prone to throat cancer. These factors include:
- Smoking tobacco
- Excess alcohol consumption
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Family history of cancer
- Inappropriate diet
- Age above 50
- Chewing tobacco or Gutka
What are the common symptoms of throat cancer?
There are a few symptoms of throat cancer that can indicate the condition early on. As different regions of the throat get affected by throat cancer, therefore the symptoms of throat cancer may vary depending on the region.
Some of the common symptoms of throat cancer are listed below:
Sore throat – A person can have a sore throat due to many reasons but if it persists for more than 2 weeks, then it could be an early sign of throat cancer.
Dysphagia – Having pain or difficulty in swallowing food is a symptom of throat cancer. It occurs due to a lump formation in the throat with a narrow food pipe.
Lump formation – The feeling of a lump in the throat, back of the mouth, or neck. Lumps form as the tumour cells accumulate in a region. This is a common sign of throat cancer.
Hoarseness – The change in the voice such as hoarseness which persists for more than 2 weeks is associated with throat cancer.
Ear or jaw pain – A persistent pain in the region of the ear or jaw without any known cause could be a sign of throat cancer.
Weight loss – Sudden unexplained weight loss without any change in regular diet or lifestyle is a common symptom of throat cancer. It is also a common symptom of any type of cancer, as the rapidly growing cells are taking up all the energy to divide and other cells are not able to fulfil the energy needed to function properly.
Blood in cough – Coughing up blood or bloody sputum is a symptom of throat cancer which occurs when the lining of the throat is damaged.
Swollen lymph nodes – A sign of throat cancer is that the lymph nodes around the throat are swollen and get bigger with time. It occurs around the neck and can be visible in other head and neck cancers.
Difficulty in breathing – Symptoms of throat cancer also involve shortness of breath or breathing difficulty which eventually requires a tracheostomy to assist the patient breathing.
Headache – Although it is a common symptom for many other medical conditions, it also is a sign of throat cancer. Headache with other symptoms can help identify the condition.
If you experience more than two symptoms for some time, consult a specialist and get diagnostic tests done.
How to diagnose throat cancer?
Diagnosis is one of the most important parts of treatment, as it helps the doctor to identify the condition accurately.
These tests help to determine the location of the tumour and how much it has spread to the surrounding regions.
After identifying the symptom of throat cancer, the doctor will ask you to take some diagnostic tests which include:
- Laryngoscopy – It is a type of endoscopy that is done to check the larynx of the patient. It uses a light, a small camera attached to a thin tube which is inserted into the mouth of the patient to look inside. This helps the doctor to examine the throat and area behind the nose of the patient.
- Imaging tests – Imaging tests such as X-rays, CT scans, PET scans, or MRIs are generally used to get an image of cancer. It helps to know the exact location of the tumour and how much surrounding tissue is affected.
- Biopsy – Biopsy is the most common test used to diagnose cancer. It involves getting a small sample of tissue which can be examined in the laboratory for the presence of cancerous cells.
What are the stages of throat cancer?
After diagnosis, the doctor classifies the tumour based on the size of the tumour and growth in the surrounding tissues.
Staging is a process that helps the doctor to plan an appropriate treatment as per the growth of the tumour. Mainly the throat cancer is divided into 4 stages which include:
- Stage 0 – Cancerous cells have started to appear on the top layer cells of the throat
- Stage 1 – The tumour has grown around 2 centimetres but has not started to spread
- Stage 2 – The tumour has grown and started to spread to the surrounding tissues.
- Stage 3 – Throat tumour has grown in other parts of the throat and surrounding lymph nodes.
- Stage 4 – Cancer has spread to other organs of the body.
There are other classification methods as well to identify the stage of cancer. It is a complex process that involves professionals to exactly stage the tumour and planning the best treatment accordingly.
What are the treatment options available?
There are several treatment methods available for throat cancer. Still, the treatment of cancer depends on different factors such as the overall health of the patient, severity of throat cancer, age, and availability of the type of treatment.
Some of the common methods of treatment are:
Surgery is mostly done based on the size of the tumour. It can be done by making an incision on the throat and removing the tumour with the help of medical instruments.
The surgery can be small or complex depending on how much cancer has spread. In a few cases, the larynx and the affected part of the throat are removed. Sometimes laser surgery is also used to treat throat cancer when the cancer is in the early stage.
Radiation therapy –
It uses high-energy waves to kill cancer cells in the body of the patient without invasion. This beam of radiation is targeted to a specific region of the body which has cancer cells.
This radiation will change the DNA of these cancer cells and kill them eventually. It is also recommended by the doctor to get radiation therapy after surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells in the body.
In the case of advanced throat cancer, where cancer has spread to other regions of the throat and other parts of the body, certain drugs are prescribed to the patient.
These drugs are used to kill cancerous cells and stop the growth of cancer. There are several side effects of these drugs. Rarely chemotherapy is given with radiation therapy in combination depending upon the adversity of cancer.
Targeted drug therapy –
This drug therapy is similar to chemotherapy, but it involves drugs that only target the cancer cells or some protein related to it.
This therapy involves such drugs that inhibit the growth of cancer cells by hindering their growth protein to stop them from dividing rapidly.
Often targeted drug therapy is recommended by the doctor to take targeted drugs for better recovery.
This treatment method also involves drugs that help boost the immune system of the patient to fight against cancerous cells. They are also known as checkpoint inhibitors.
The cancer cells in the body use this checkpoint to stop the immune system from killing them, therefore immunotherapy drugs inhibit these checkpoints making these cancer cells vulnerable to immune cells that will kill them.
What happens after throat cancer treatment?
After getting treatment, it may take a few weeks to completely recover from the changes. Some people experience post-treatment side effects such as sore throat, trouble swallowing food, breathing issues or pain in the throat. All these symptoms are temporary, and it may take a few weeks to recover.
If diagnosed at an early stage, it is possible to cure throat cancer. Whereas the survival rate of localised throat cancer is more than 60% for five years or above.
After the treatment, it is advised to take good care of the patient and meet the doctor for follow-up appointments.