What is throat cancer?

Throat cancer is a general term some people use to describe a cancer that starts in the throat. Doctors don't generally use  this term. This is because there are different types of cancer which can affect the area of the throat.

Your nurse will explain the type of cancer you have and the correct name. This is important so that you have the correct information. 

People may use the word throat to describe different parts of the neck. Cancers that start in the following parts of the neck and are treated differently:

  • Thyroid gland
    Cancer that starts in the thyroid gland (in the front of your neck) is called thyroid cancer.
  • Gullet or food pipe
    Cancer that starts in the gullet or food pipe is called oesophageal cancer.
  • Wind pipe (trachea)
    Cancer that starts in the wind pipe (trachea) is called tracheal cancer

Cancers that start in the part of the throat called the pharynx and the larynx (voicebox) may also be referred to as throat cancers. 

The pharynx

The pharynx is divided into three main parts:

  • Nasopharynx
    This is the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose. Cancers that develop here are called nasopharyngeal cancers.
  • Oropharynx
    This is the middle part of the pharynx, behind the mouth. It includes the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), the base or the back of the tongue (the part you cannot see), the tonsils and the side walls of the throat. The most common places in the oropharynx for cancer to develop are on the tonsils and the base of the tongue. Cancers that develop here are called oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Hypopharynx
    This is the lower part of the pharynx, behind the voice box. Cancers that develop here are called hypopharyngeal cancers.

We have more information about:

The voice box (larynx)

The larynx is the voice box. It is a short passageway in front of the hypopharynx (lower pharynx). It contains the vocal cords.

We have more information about cancer of the larynx.

Causes of throat cancer

Doctors do not know the exact causes of throat cancers. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.

These will depend on the type of throat cancer you have, but there are some common risk factors.

We have more information about the causes and risk factors for head and neck cancer.

Symptoms of throat cancer

Signs and symptoms of throat cancer may depend on the specific type you have.

We have more information about:

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