What Your ENT Can Tell You About Throat Cancer

Do you smoke?
Do you use tobacco products?
Do you drink excessive amounts of alcohol?
Do you drink alcohol and smoke?

These habits place you at risk for developing throat cancer. While throat cancer is not one of the most common cancers, it can still have a devastating effect on someone’s life, particularly if the cancer damages the larynx, or voice box.

At Risk For Throat Cancer?

Most throat cancers develop in those over age 50, and men are ten times more likely to develop throat cancer than women. The combination of smoking and drinking place someone at greater risk of throat cancer than drinking or smoking alone.

HPV can also place someone at risk for throat cancer. HPV (genital human papillomavirus) is a common sexually transmitted infection. While some types of HPV are not harmful, the Centers for Disease control states that there are more than 40 types of HPV that can infect the mouth and throat.  This is called “oral HPV.” HPV can cause cancers at the base of the tongue, the tonsils and the back of throat. Studies show that oral HPV is three times more common in men than women.  Research is ongoing on how oral HPV is transmitted, and some studies show conflicting results, suggesting that it may be transmitted through oral sex, although the likelihood of that is not known. More research is needed to understand how oral HPV is transmitted.

While there is no simple screening test for throat cancer, early detection still plays a large role in increasing survival rates. Symptoms of throat cancer may include:

  • A consistent cough or coughing up blood
  • Lumps or swelling in the neck
  • High-pitched breathing sounds
  • Neck or ear pain
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Chronic hoarseness that does not improve within two weeks.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Symptoms?

If you have these symptoms, please speak with your doctor, who may refer you to an otolaryngologist. An otolaryngologist –also called an ENT physician-- is a doctor who specializes in treating diseases that affect the ear, nose and throat.  An ENT physician can conduct a head, throat, and neck exam to see if there is any evidence of cancer. He or she may also take a tissue sample for a biopsy. This tissue will be examined closely to determine whether or not there are any signs of cancer.

As a part of a head, neck, and throat exam, your ENT physician may perform:

  • A flexible laryngoscopy – where the doctor uses a thin, flexible, fiber-optic tube to visualize the area
  • An indirect laryngoscopy – where the doctor uses mirrors to view the area

Throat cancer may have different names, depending upon where the cancer originated and what parts of the throat are affected. Throat cancer may affect:

  • The oropharynx (the part of the throat at the back of the mouth)
  • The hypopharynx (the part of the throat where the larynx—voice box—and esophagus meet)
  • The nasopharynx (the upper part of the throat behind the nose.)
  • The larynx (laryngeal cancer)

According to the American Cancer Society, more than half of laryngeal cancers start in the area containing the vocal cords (glottis). Around 35 percent develop above the vocal cords (supraglottic). Each year, 3,640 people die from laryngeal cancer. Thankfully, new cases of laryngeal cancer are falling by about 3 percent each year because fewer people are smoking.

For more information, watch this short video about throat cancer from the US National Library of Medicine.


U.S. National Library of Medicine. Throat or Larynx cancer. (Feb. 3 2014) Medline Plus.

The American Cancer Society. What are the key statistics about laryngeal and

hypopharyngeal cancers? April 8, 2014.