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What Does Throat Cancer Look Like?

Woman tested for throat cancer

Throat cancer is an uncommon but fast-growing malignancy that develops in the flat cells that line the pharynx (throat), a muscular tube that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus. It can also originate in the larynx (voice box).

As with all types of cancer, early detection of throat cancer is key to achieving the best possible outcome and quality of life. Therefore, it is important to know the symptoms. In addition to sore throat, some of the most recognizable signs of throat cancer include painful swallowing, vocal hoarseness, wheezing, difficulty breathing and swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

Additionally, because throat cancer can cause noticeable changes in the appearance of the throat, many experts recommend performing a monthly head and neck self-exam, including a throat exam. This is an excellent way to become familiar with the appearance of your throat and what is normal for you. Here’s how to do it and what to look for:

Examining Your Throat for Signs of Cancer

While facing a mirror, open your mouth and say “ah.” Then, tilt your head slightly backward and shine a flashlight toward the back of your throat. This will elevate your palate—the soft tissue on the roof of your mouth—and provide you with a better view of your throat.

Next, scan your throat for anything unusual, such as:

  • Color variations
  • Red or white spots
  • Ulcers or sores
  • Lumps or masses

Although any such changes should be promptly discussed with a physician, none are conclusive signs of throat cancer. Some may be normal lymphatic tissue, which may be a sign that your body is fighting off an infection. Others can signal a virus. A physician can provide an accurate diagnosis and get you started on an appropriate treatment plan, if necessary.

If you would like to discuss your throat cancer symptoms with an oncologist in the Head and Neck Cancer Program at Moffitt Cancer Center, you can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or completing our new patient registration form online. We provide every new patient rapid access to a cancer expert within a day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation.