Throat cancer is a general term some people use to describe a cancer that starts in the throat. Doctors do not generally use this term. This is because there are different types of cancer which can affect the area of the throat.
The throat is also called the pharynx. It is a tube that starts behind your nose and ends in your neck. Air, food, and liquid pass through the throat. It also helps in forming speech.
Your doctor or nurse will explain the type of cancer you have and the correct name. This is important so that you have the right information about the type of cancer you have.
People may use the word throat to describe different parts of the neck. Cancers that start in the following areas are not throat cancers 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.
Throat cancers are cancers that start in the pharynx and in the larynx (voicebox). The pharynx is divided into three main parts; the nasopharynx, the oropharynx and the hypopharynx. The larynx is in front of the hypopharynx.
The pharynx is divided into three main parts:
This is the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose. Cancers that develop here are called nasopharyngeal cancers.
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. Cancers that develop here are called oropharyngeal cancers.
The most common places in the oropharynx for cancer to develop are on the tonsils and the base of the tongue.
This is the lower part of the pharynx, behind the voice box. Cancers that develop here are called hypopharyngeal cancers.
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 laryngeal cancer.
Signs and symptoms of throat cancer depend on the specific type you have.
For more information about symptoms, follow the links above to the different types of throat cancer. Some of the possible symptoms of throat cancer include:
- a lump in the neck that does not go away
- sore throat that does not get better
- difficulty swallowing that is not improving
- changes to your voice, such as hoarseness.
These are only some symptoms that may be linked to throat cancer. We have more information about:
Doctors do not know the exact causes of throat cancers. But there are risk factors that can increase the chance of developing it. These depend on the type of throat cancer you have. But there are some common risk factors. These include:
- smoking tobacco
- regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol
- human papillomavirus (HPV), which some cases of oropharyngeal cancer are linked to. Oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV often start in the tonsils or the base of the tongue.
- Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), which causes glandular fever, and in small number of cases, is linked to nasopharyngeal cancer.
HPV and EBV are very common viruses. Most people with these viruses will not develop cancer.
These are only some possible risk factors. We have more information about:
Below is a sample of the sources used in our head and neck cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at email@example.com
Machiels J.-P, Leemans C. R. et al. Squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity, larynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx. EHNS- ESMO-ESTRO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Annals of Oncology, 2020. Volume 31, Issue 11, Pages 1462-1475.
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract: assessment and management in people aged 16 and over. NICE guideline NG36 2016 (updated 2018).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist and Senior Medical Editor, Dr Claire Paterson, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
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