Diagnosing throat cancer typically begins with a physical examination and a thorough review of the patient’s personal and family medical histories. If a physician suspects that a patient may have throat cancer, they will likely order one or more of the following tests to confirm the diagnosis:
- Laryngoscopy – Laryngoscopy is a type of endoscopy, which is a procedure that involves inserting a long, thin, flexible tube with a camera and a light on one end (an endoscope) to closely examine the area in question. Once the scope is inserted, the images captured by the camera will be transmitted onto a video screen and reviewed by the medical team. Laryngoscopy, more specifically, involves inserting a long tube with a light and a camera (a laryngoscope) to view a patient’s voice box (the larynx) and the tissues surrounding it (the hypopharynx). Because patients with throat cancer have a higher risk of developing other types of head and neck cancer, the physician may also examine the portion of the throat located behind the nose (the nasopharynx), as well as the mouth, tongue and neck.
- Biopsy – If a laryngoscopy reveals abnormalities within the throat, a physician will likely order a biopsy, which involves collecting a tissue sample. Biopsies can often be completed during an endoscopy or laryngoscopy—a physician will pass one or more small surgical instruments through the tube to retrieve the necessary sample while the scope is still inserted. Alternatively, the tissue sample can also be obtained using fine needle aspiration. Once the sample has been collected, it is sent to a laboratory, where a pathologist examines it under a microscope for signs of cancer and/or human papillomavirus (HPV).
- Imaging tests – If the diagnostic tests listed above confirm a throat cancer diagnosis, a physician may order one or more imaging tests—such as a computerized tomography (CT) scan, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan or a positron emission tomography (PET) scan—to determine whether the malignancy has spread beyond the throat, and if so, how far.
Throat cancer stages
After diagnosing throat cancer, a physician will need to stage the malignancy in order to determine how to proceed with treatment. Throat cancer is generally staged using the American Joint Committee on Cancer’s TNM system, which considers the size and extent of the tumor (T), the involvement (if any) of nearby lymph nodes (N) and whether cancer has spread (metastasized) to other areas of the body (M). Based on these factors, throat cancer can be labeled as one of the following five stages, which range from stage 0 (the least severe) to stage 4 (the most severe):
- Stage 0 – The cancer is starting to grow in the throat’s outermost layer of cells (the epithelial cells), but has not reached deeper layers of tissue, nearby lymph nodes or other surrounding structures.
- Stage 1 – The primary tumor’s diameter is less than 2 centimeters, and the cancer remains confined to the tumor.
- Stage 2 – The primary tumor’s diameter is between 2 and 4 centimeters, and the cancer remains confined to the tumor.
- Stage 3 – Either the primary tumor’s diameter is more than 4 centimeters or the cancer has spread to a lymph node on the same side of the neck (regardless of the tumor’s size).
- Stage 4 – Stage 4 throat cancer can be divided into three substages. With stages 4A and 4B, the cancer has spread to nearby structures (this may or may not include the lymph nodes) but has not spread to distant areas of the body. With stage 4C, the cancer has spread to distant sites (for example, the lungs).
How to check for throat cancer at home
As of this time, there are no screening tests for laryngeal or hypopharyngeal cancers. As such, it’s important to remain vigilant regarding throat cancer symptoms, which may include hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, a sore throat, a persistent cough, pain within the ear or jaw, a palpable lump within the neck and unexplained weight loss. If you’re experiencing symptoms like these, you should consult with a trained medical professional as soon as possible to rule out throat cancer.
What causes throat cancer?
Researchers are still working to identify the exact causes of throat cancer. But while throat cancer causes are still largely unknown, studies have shown that the following risk factors can increase a person’s chances of developing this malignancy:
- Tobacco use
- Excessive alcohol use
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection
- Poor oral hygiene
- Use of mouthwash containing a high amount of alcohol
- A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables
- A history of head or neck cancer
It’s important to note that having one or more of these risk factors present does not necessarily mean that someone will develop throat cancer. Conversely, some individuals develop throat cancer without having any known risk factors.
Throat cancer diagnosis at Moffitt Cancer Center
If you’re concerned that you may have throat cancer or any other type of malignancy, you can feel confident turning to Moffitt Cancer Center for diagnosis and treatment. We’re one of the nation’s premier cancer treatment facilities—the only one based in Florida to have been designated a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute—and our Head and Neck Oncology Program includes highly experienced surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, endocrinologists, radiologists and supportive care professionals.
To learn more about Moffitt’s approach to throat cancer diagnosis and treatment, call us today at 1-888-663-3488 or fill out our new patient registration form online. You do not need a referral to schedule an appointment. We aim to provide each new patient with rapid access to the care they need, so you can expect to be connected to a cancer expert within just one day—a turnaround time faster than that of any other cancer hospital in the country.
Cancer.net: Types of Endoscopy
American Cancer Society: Risk Factors for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers
American Cancer Society: Can Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers Be Found Early?
American Cancer Society: Laryngoscopy