One Singer’s Sore Throat Turned Out to be Cancer

By Sara Bondell - January 25, 2019

For a lot of us, a sore throat and swollen tonsils are the tell-tale signs of a cold or strep throat.

It’s rare, but for Grammy-winning country singer John Berry, a sore throat was a sign of cancer.

The 59-year-old shared on Facebook that he started feeling a “catch” in his throat, and that when he shined a flashlight down the back of his throat he noticed swollen tonsils. After antibiotics didn’t help, a CT scan revealed he had two tumors in his tonsils.

Dr. Caitlin McMullen, otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon, Moffitt Cancer Center.

Tonsil cancers are included in a group of cancers called oropharyngeal cancers, which are cancers of the back of the tongue, soft palate and back wall of the throat. “In general, these cancers are uncommon, but the rate of oropharyngeal cancers is rising worldwide, in particular in North America, related to the human papillomavirus (HPV),” said Dr. Caitlin McMullen, a surgeon in Moffitt’s Head and Neck Oncology Program.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are about 3,400 new cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers diagnosed in women and about 14,800 diagnosed in men each year in the United States. Alcohol and tobacco are also risk factors for the disease.

Tonsil cancer can feel like a sore throat associated with illness, so it’s important to pay attention to other symptoms, such as a foreign body sensation in the throat, swollen lymph nodes in the neck that persist beyond the expected timeframe of a typical cold, bleeding and difficulty swallowing. If your sore throat is accompanied by any of these unusual symptoms, you should talk to your doctor.

Typical treatment for tonsil cancer may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination of the three. Early stage cancers related to HPV can have a good chance of being cured.

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