Throat cancer is a relatively uncommon type of cancer that can develop in any of several areas of the throat, leading to a variety of possible symptoms. Therefore, a brief description of the throat’s anatomy may be helpful if you’re curious about the symptoms of throat cancer.
The primary organ of the throat is the pharynx, which is a muscular tube that extends from the back of your nose into your neck all the way to the esophagus. The pharynx has three parts: the nasopharynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx (also known as the laryngopharynx or gullet). Throat cancer is typically categorized according to where the cancerous cells originated. Thus, you may hear medical professionals refer to nasopharyngeal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer, or hypopharyngeal cancer.
Another part of the throat where cancer could develop is the larynx, which contains your vocal cords—hence, its nickname, "voice box." This type of cancer is often called "laryngeal cancer" or "glottic cancer."
What does throat cancer look like?
For many patients with throat cancer, a sore throat that lasts for weeks is an early warning sign. Other symptoms of throat cancer can vary according to where the tumor is located. Throat cancer most often begins in the flat cells lining the pharynx, which means it is a type of squamous cell carcinoma. It’s important to remember that the throat cancer symptoms listed here are often signs of other more common health conditions, not necessarily cancer.
One of the most noticeable symptoms of throat cancer, whether it’s in the pharynx or larynx, is neck swelling or a painless lump in the neck, which can indicate a swollen lymph node. Sores that don’t heal and red or white patches inside the mouth can be visible symptoms of throat cancer as well.
Additional symptoms of pharyngeal throat cancer include:
- Earaches and changes in hearing
- Persistent nasal congestion
- Chronic coughing, possibly expelling bloody phlegm
- Frequent headaches and facial pain
- A lump in the back of your throat that doesn’t go away
- Swallowing and/or breathing difficulties
- Unintended weight loss
When throat cancer begins in the larynx, it can cause persistent hoarseness as well as the symptoms listed above.
How to check for throat cancer at home
You’re more likely to detect throat cancer early, when it’s the most treatable, by doing a monthly self-examination at home. Use your fingers to check your neck for lumps. Then, using a mirror:
- Look for an asymmetrical appearance or discoloration on your neck.
- Examine your lips and gums, and take note if you have sores that don’t seem to be healing.
- Open your mouth wide and check your tongue (top, bottom and sides), the back of your throat, the inner lining of your cheeks, and the roof of your mouth for lumps or red or white patches.
If you notice any of these symptoms and they last for more than two weeks or become worse, it’s a good idea to schedule a checkup with your physician or dentist.
How is throat cancer diagnosed?
If throat cancer is suspected based on your symptoms, your physician may order one or more diagnostic tests to check for the disease. At Moffitt Cancer Center, the multispecialty team of our Head and Neck Cancer Program collaboratively evaluates each patient’s symptoms and diagnostic test results. If a throat cancer diagnosis is confirmed, we develop a highly individualized treatment plan, which may include clinical trials and promising new therapies.
To request an appointment with a head and neck cancer specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center, call 1-888-663-3488 or fill out our new patient registration form online. At Moffitt, we’re committed to connecting every new patient with a cancer expert within a day, which is faster than any other cancer hospital in the nation.
Healthline: What Is Throat Cancer?
American Cancer Society: Signs and Symptoms of Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer
American Cancer Society: Signs and Symptoms of Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers
National Cancer Institute: Laryngeal Cancer Treatment