Do you take your throat for granted? Think about how much you use it -- and what you wouldn't be able to do without it. That's the uncertainity facing thousands who are diagnosed with throat cancer every year. Luckily, when caught in its early stages, the throat cancer survival rate is 90 percent. To increase your chances of surviving -- or preventing -- this disease, get to know the symptoms of throat cancer and the benefits of throat cancer treatment.
Throat cancer is a type of oral cancer that affects the larynx, pharynx and other areas of the throat. It may be classified as laryngeal cancer, which develops in the larynx, or voice box, the two bands of muscle that form the vocal chords. Pharyngeal cancer develops in the pharynx, or the throat itself.
Throat Cancer Symptoms
Early diagnosis plays a large role in the throat cancer survival rate. The earlier throat cancer is detected, the better chances you have of recovery. Common throat cancer symptoms may include:
- Persistent coughing or coughing up blood
- Ongoing hoarseness or changes in the voice
- Difficulty swallowing or breathing
- Ear aches
- A sore throat that does not go away
- A bump on the neck or a mouth sore that doesn't heal
- Feeling as though there's a "lump" in your throat
- Unintentional weight loss
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Bad breath
Many symptoms of throat cancer are also signs of other illnesses. The only way to determine whether you have throat cancer is through proper diagnosis by a medical professional.
Diagnosing Throat Cancer
There are several tests used to diagnose throat cancer. An endoscopy consists of a lighted scope (endoscope) with an attached camera used to explore your throat. A laryngoscopy is similar but uses a laryngoscope to look at your voice box. If the doctor notices any abnormal tissue, he or she can perform a biopsy by passing surgical instruments through the scope to take tissue samples.
Imaging tests may also be needed to determine the size and location of the tumor and whether it is operable. This can come in the form of X-rays, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography) scans. A PET scan (positron emission tomography) scans the lymph nodes to see if throat cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Finally, throat cancer is staged to determine the degree to which the cancer has progressed and help determine what type of throat cancer treatment will be best for you. There are four stages of throat cancer -- the higher the stage, the more advanced the cancer and the harder it is to treat.
Throat Cancer Treatment
Throat cancer will not go away on its own, but treatment can increase your throat cancer survival rate. The goal of any throat cancer treatment is to entirely remove the cancer and prevent it from spreading. Depending on the stage and location of your cancer, you and your doctor may choose any combination of treatments:
- Radiation Therapy -- Often the first type of treatment used, radiation uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Radiation may be the only treatment needed for early stages of throat cancer, or it may be used in combination with other treatments to treat more aggressive cancers.
- Chemotherapy -- Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy is more often used to treat advanced stages of throat cancer.
- Surgery -- There are several types of surgery available for throat cancer treatment:
- Endoscopy: Primarily used to treat the early stages of throat cancer, a laser or surgical tool is used to remove the cancerous surface layer of tissue.
- Laryngectomy: The most common surgery for throat cancer, a laryngectomy is the surgical removal of all or part of the larynx.
- Pharyngectomy: All or part of pharynx is removed surgically.
- Cordectomy: This is the removal of one or both vocal cords.
- Neck Dissection: If the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes (glands), they might be removed. The goal of a neck dissection is to contain throat cancer before it spreads to the body.
As with any cancer treatment, complications can be expected. Treatments used to destroy cancer cells will often destroy healthy cells too. Hair loss, fatigue and nausea are common side effects of throat cancer treatment. Other complications include problems with speaking, swallowing and scarring, and rehabilitation may be needed to improve speech. Removing even part of the larynx may cause voice damage, but the less tissue that is removed, the less damage is likely. Throat reconstruction is also a possibility after surgery.
While throat cancer symptoms can affect anyone at any time, there are certain risk factors that can increase your chances of a positive diagnosis. The following factors can increase your risk of developing throat cancer:
- Drinking alcohol
- Poor oral hygiene
- Diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
- Living with HPV
- Exposure to asbestos, sulfuric acid or nickel
- Gender (men are more at risk)
- Age (being over the age of 55 increases risk)
- A history of previous oral cancer or cancer in your family
If you fall into any of these categories and notice any symptoms of throat cancer, contact your doctor right away.
While some cases of throat cancer are inevitable, many are preventable. Taking the following measures can decrease your risk of developing throat cancer:
Don't smoke. Not only does it cause cancer, but smoking makes treatment less effective and healing difficult. Smoking also increases your chances of cancer returning.
Cut back on alcohol. Drink in moderation. That means no more than two drinks per day for men and one for women.
Eat healthy. Studies suggest that the vitamins and antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables may help prevent cancer.
Beware of chemicals. Breathing in hazardous chemical fumes can increase your risk of developing throat cancer. If you work with chemicals, wear a mask and properly ventilate the room.
Now you have even an even better reason to visit your dentist regularly! Due to their close proximity to the area, dentists are often the first to spot symptoms of throat cancer. If throat cancer symptoms are spotted, he or she should refer you to your doctor for treatment.
Schedule your oral cancer exam