What Is Throat Cancer?

Illustration of the pharynx

The pharynx is a hollow tube about five inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus (food pipe) and the larynx (voice box).

The pharynx has three parts:

  • Nasopharynx: The upper part of the pharynx is called the nasopharynx. It’s the area of your throat right behind your nose.
  • Oropharynx: The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx. It includes the soft palate, the soft area right behind the hard roof of your mouth; the back one-third of your tongue (base of the tongue); and your tonsils.
  • Hypopharynx: The hypopharynx is the lower part of the pharynx that funnels food to the esophagus (food pipe).

What causes throat cancer?

Infection with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV) — a virus that infects the skin and can cause abnormal tissue growth — has been linked to 70% of cancers of the mouth and throat (oropharyngeal cancers). Smoking and heavy drinking are also major risk factors for this disease.

Over the past several years, the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease, has been linked to a growing number of throat cancers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in the U.S., 70% of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV. (It could be that these cancers are not caused by HPV alone but develop when someone who has HPV also uses tobacco and/or drinks alcohol.)

What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

  • A lump or mass in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing, or pain when swallowing
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Sore throat that doesn’t go away
  • Ear pain or ringing in the ears
  • Hearing loss in one ear
  • Bad breath that doesn’t go away
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Blood-tinged saliva
  • Double vision
  • Frequent headaches

How is throat cancer diagnosed?