Cancer happens when the cells in the body uncontrollably multiply and mutate into killer cells. It can happen anywhere in the body, including the pharynx.
The pharynx is the area of the throat that is situated just behind the mouth and nasal cavity. It’s also located in the larynx and esophagus. The pharynx chamber works for both digestive and respiratory functions. It is where both food and air enters and divides into the esophagus, where food passes through, and the larynx, where air enters to the lungs.
Cancer can happen to the pharynx, too. Pharyngeal cancer happens when cancer cells develop and multiply uncontrollably in the pharynx. Usually, a doctor who sees a person who has a sore throat that does not go away, a lump in the back of the mouth and trouble swallowing, should recommend further examination and assessment. These signs and symptoms may signal the presence of pharyngeal cancer or throat cancer.
After treatment, the chance of survival or prognosis depends on where the cancer is located in the throat. If the cancer is detected only in the area, the prognosis is better compared to cancer that has affected nearby tissues, the lymph nodes, and other organs.
Usually, one of the first symptoms of pharyngeal cancer is the appearance of a painless lump in the upper neck. Other symptoms include the following:
- Swelling or inflammation of the neck area
- A cough
- Persistent headaches
- Changes in the voice
- Unclear speaking
- Nasal congestion or a blocked nose
- Pain in the facial area
- Hearing problems
- Ringing in the ears or tinnitus
- Swallowing problems
- A sore that does not heal
- A sore throat
- Unexplained weight loss
Like any other cancer in the body, the exact cause is still unclear. Pharyngeal cancer happens when the cells in the throat undergo genetic mutations. As a result, the cells grow uncontrollably and continue thriving. When these cells build-up or accumulate, they form a tumor.
Types of pharyngeal or throat cancer
The type of pharyngeal or throat cancer depends on the location where cancer starts.
Nasopharyngeal cancer – This type of cancer starts in the nasopharynx, the part of the throat located at the back of the nose.
Oropharyngeal cancer – This type of cancer starts in the oropharynx. It’s the area behind the mouth. It usually includes the tonsils.
Laryngopharyngeal cancer or hypopharyngeal – This type of cancer begins in the part of the throat called hypopharynx or laryngopharynx, which is the lower end of the throat just above the windpipe and esophagus.
Glottic cancer – This type of cancer starts in the vocal cords.
The exact cause of pharyngeal cancer is unclear but certain factors may increase the risk. These include:
- Older people about 50-60 years old, but can occur at any age
- It affects more men than women
- Tobacco use (smoking or chewing tobacco)
- Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus
- Drinking too much alcohol
- A diet that lacks vegetables and fruits
- Exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Some complications of throat cancer include:
- Airway obstruction, making it difficult to breathe
- Disfigurement of the neck and face
- Loss of voice or ability to speak
- Hardening of the neck skin
- Metastasis or spread of cancer to the other parts of the body
- Difficulty swallowing
The doctor usually examines the mouth, ears, and throat to see the pharynx. In some cases, the doctor needs to pass a thin tube with a light probe at the end into the nostril to look at the back of the nose. This is called flexible endoscopy.
If the doctor suspects cancer, he may obtain a sample tissue from the area to be examined under a microscope. The pathologist will usually determine the type of cancer by looking at the type of cell affected. The different types include undifferentiated or poorly differentiated carcinoma, keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma, and non-keratinizing squamous cell carcinoma.
The doctor may also request for other tests including:
Imaging tests can be recommended to determine if the tumor has already invaded surrounding tissues or the other organs of the body.
Orthopantomography (panorex) – This is a panoramic type of X-ray that takes images of the upper and lower jaw. This will help determine if cancer has already affected the jaw bone.
Computerized tomography (CT) scan – This type of scan takes series of detailed 3D images of areas inside the mouth and neck. A dye may be injected into a vein.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan – This type of scan uses a magnet and radio waves to take detailed images of areas inside the mouth and neck.
Positron emission tomography (PET) scan – This is a type of scan where a small amount of radioactive glucose is injected into a vein. The machine takes computerized photos of the areas inside the body. Tumors can absorb radioactive glucose than normal cells, so they look more prominent in photos.
The treatment options for throat cancer include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery. The treatment will depend on the extent, stage and severity of the disease.
The type of surgical procedures may depend on the stage and location of cancer.
Surgery for early-stage throat cancer – When the cancer is located just on the surface of the throat, it can be treated through a procedure.
Laryngectomy – This surgical procedure involves the removal of all or a portion of the voice box. In some cases, the patient can still speak after the procedure but some should learn to speak even without a voice box.
Neck dissection – In this procedure, cancer has already spread to the neck and the surgeon may already remove the lymph nodes.
Pharyngectomy – In this procedure, the doctor will remove a part of the throat.
For larger tumors that have already metastasized to the lymph nodes in the neck, the doctor may recommend chemotherapy. It uses drugs that can kill cancer cells and slow down the growth of these malignant cells.
Usually, chemotherapy is used with radiation therapy in treating pharyngeal cancer. Though these can be more effective due to the fact that some chemotherapy drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy, combining them increase the risk of side effects.
Targeted drug therapy
Targeted drugs treat pharyngeal cancer that targets some parts of cancer cells to stop their growth. In some drugs, they stop the action of a protein that’s found in many healthy cells and are found in some types of throat cancer cells.
The throat is where people eat and breathe. The treatment for throat cancer can cause complications. Hence, rehabilitation is important. Some problems that might arise from treating throat cancer include swallowing problems, eating difficulties, speech issues and stiffness or pain in the neck.
If the condition is diagnosed early on, the cure rate is higher. In some cases, pharyngeal or throat cancer may become harder to cure once the malignant cells have spread to the other parts of the body. Treatment options can help prolong the life of the patient and slow the disease progression.
- Do not smoke or stop smoking because it is a major risk factor for developing throat cancer. If you are having a hard time, you can use over-the-counter products to help you quit smoking including nicotine replacement products.
- Drink alcohol in moderation. Men should consume no more than two alcoholic drinks a day and women should not take no more than one drink each day.
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and lean meats.
The antioxidants in these food choices may help reduce the risk of throat cancer.
- Exercise at least 150 minutes per week and lose weight if you’re overweight or obese.
- Reduce the intake of too much sodium and fat.
- Protect yourself from HPV. You can do this by limiting the number of sexual partners and practicing safe sex. Also, there are vaccines available to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.
Lifestyle and home remedies
The number one thing to do is quit smoking if you’re smoking and do not smoke when you are not. Pharyngeal cancers are linked to smoking. If you have throat cancer, smoking should be stopped because it can make the treatment less effective, it can increase the risk of getting another type of cancer, and it makes it harder for the body to heal after surgery or invasive procedures.
Another way is to reduce alcohol intake. Excessive alcohol drinking combined with smoking can increase the risk of throat cancer. If you are drinking alcohol and you already have throat cancer, stop it now. Abstaining from alcohol can reduce the risk of developing secondary cancer. It may also help you become more tolerable to the various throat cancer treatments.
Also, eat healthy foods and avoid foods that are filled with preservatives. Stick with organic foods, fruits, and vegetables. You can also exercise in moderation and keep an active lifestyle. Avoid a sedentary lifestyle that involves sitting for long periods.