Throat cancer is cancer that forms in tissues of the pharynx (the hollow tube inside the neck that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the windpipe) and larynx (voice box). Larynx and pharynx cancers are the third most common cancers diagnosed in Indian males after lung and oral cavity cancer. More than 60,000 cases of throat cancer are diagnosed every year.
Tobacco is by far the most common cause of throat cancer. Both smoking and ‘smokeless’ tobacco (tobacco chewing) increases the risk of throat cancer. Heavy alcohol use and diet low in fruits or vegetables are the other factors associated with the development of throat cancer.
When to see a doctor
-Sore throat that doesn’t go away.
-Pain or difficulty in swallowing
-Hoarseness or change in voice quality
-Ear pain, a lump in the neck are the common symptoms of throat cancer.
These symptoms may be caused by other less serious conditions. But, it is important to check with your doctor for any of these.
In making a diagnosis of throat cancer, your doctor will start by recording your medical history, asking about any symptoms you may be experiencing and conducting a thorough physical examination. Your doctor may also recommend some tests like endoscopy (to see the inside of throat), CT scan or PET scan (for additional information regarding the spread to adjacent areas, staging of disease), and cytology or biopsy (removal of tissue to confirm the diagnosis).
How is throat cancer treated?
Throat cancer patients are best treated by a multidisciplinary team of specialists that includes a surgical oncologist, radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, dieticians, speech and physical therapists. The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors including the site of disease, stage of the disease, the person’s age and general health. The patient and doctor should consider and discuss each treatment option carefully.
- Surgery: It may involve removal of a part of the throat and voice box. In these cases, the ability to speak, swallow or breathe may be affected. Surgery is usually reserved for advanced cases.
- Radiation therapy: This treatment involves the use of high energy X-rays to kill cancer cells. Traditionally it was used as an adjunct after the surgery in throat cancers. With better understanding of tumour biology and behaviour, technological advancement in radiation planning and delivery, radiation alone (in early cases) or combined with chemotherapy has become the new standard of care since the past decade. Radiation therapy not only provides good tumour control rates but also helps in preservation of organ form and function i.e. speech and swallowing.
- Chemotherapy: This treatment uses drugs to kill cancer cells. The co- administration of chemo-radiotherapy has provided a credible alternative of organ preservation to throat cancer patients. Chemotherapy not only kills cancer cells throughout the body, but also enhances the action of radiation.
- Targeted therapy: This treatment includes drugs that act at molecular level to destroy or inhibit cancer cell growth. Unlike chemotherapy they have fewer side-effects.
Regular follow-up care is very essential after treatment of throat cancer, to make sure that the cancer has not returned. The medical check-up could include neck or throat examination. Quitting smoking and alcohol not only lowers the risk of throat cancer, but also reduces the chances of developing new secondary cancers in already treated patients.