Can throat cancer be cured?

Man holding throat

Throat cancer is a broad term that includes several different cancer types occurring in various parts of the throat. These parts are the oropharynx (back of the throat), the hypopharynx (area next to the voice box), the nasopharynx (upper part of the throat behind the nose) and the larynx (voice box).

These cancers can be cured, but survival rates are different for each type of throat cancer, says Kimberly Wooten, MD, Head & Neck and Plastic & Reconstructive Surgeon at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. “The type of throat cancer is important because that determines diagnosis, staging and treatment options,” Dr. Wooten says. “The general term ‘throat cancer’ is much more complex in regard to treatment compared to other types of cancer, such as breast or colon, for instance.”

What are the survival rates?

Survival for throat cancers depends on the type of cancer as well as the stage and location of the cancer. Overall, “The most successful cure rates are in the earlier stages,” Dr. Wooten says. “The staging is important. In later stages, in which the cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes — stage 3 — the overall five-year survival is around 50%. And if it spread to distant areas of the body like lungs, liver or bone — stage 4 — this survival rate drops to roughly 30%.”

Specific survival rates are different for different types of throat cancer. Cancers with high survival include cancers of the vocal cords, as well as cancers of the tonsils and back of the tongue that are related to the human papillomavirus (HPV). Cancers at the vocal cords have a five-year survival of 80-90%, “in part because symptoms are more noticeable,” she says, which means these cancers are often caught early.

In addition, survival rates also differ among the specific sites of the tumors. For instance, cancers of the vocal cords (glottis) have higher survival rates compared to cancers located above the vocal cords (called the supraglottis) or below the vocal cords (called the subglottis), Dr. Wooten says.

The overall five-year survival rate for cancer of the voice box (larynx) is roughly 60%, she says. Fortunately, when it’s caught earlier, in stages 1 and 2, the survival rate is higher, closer to 80 to 90% for same time frame.

Unfortunately, cancers of the hypopharynx, an area of the throat next to the voice box, are more challenging. “These have a much lower five-year survival rate of about 50%, even when caught in the early stages,” she says.

What are the risk factors and symptoms?

The main risk factors for throat cancer are using tobacco and alcohol. Certain types of throat cancer have other risk factors. For example, HPV is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancers (tonsils and base of tongue). “The symptoms of throat cancers vary based on the site of the disease,” Dr. Wooten says. The most common symptoms include:

  • Hoarseness
  • Voice changes
  • Problems swallowing
  • Sore throat that doesn't go away
  • Tender lumps or masses in the mouth, back of throat or neck
  • Ear pain
  • Unintentional weight loss

How are throat cancers diagnosed and treated?

Physicians may diagnose throat cancers through a physical exam and history, imaging tests and a biopsy. Other tests may also be required, depending on the type of cancer.

“The treatment decision for throat cancer is based on a number of things, including site of the cancer, the stage at diagnosis and the function of voice and swallowing that the patient currently has,” Dr. Wooten says.

For some early laryngeal cancers, surgery or radiation can be equally effective. However, for later-stage disease, surgery plus other treatment, such as radiation and/or chemotherapy, may be needed. Some tonsil or base of tongue (oropharyngeal) cancers can be treated surgically, she says. Patients may qualify for minimally invasive surgeries, which improve overall function and hasten recovery. Chemotherapy and radiation are often used for oropharyngeal cancers related to HPV, but surgery is also an option in select patients.

Why Roswell Park for throat cancer?

Find out what makes Roswell park unique in diagnosing and treating throat cancer, as well as other cancers of the head and neck.

Learn More

Do throat cancers typically recur?

Whether a throat cancer recurs after treatment depends largely on the cancer’s stage at diagnosis. Those that were diagnosed at later stages are more likely to recur. With laryngeal cancer, for instance, the risk of recurrence over the first three years is 5 to 12% for stage 1 disease, and can be as high as 30% for stage 2 disease. For patients diagnosed later stages, the recurrence can be as high has 50% within the first five years. “This means that this disease often recurs, and continued surveillance is necessary,” she says.

That’s why patients should seek care for throat cancer at a comprehensive cancer center like Roswell Park. “Due to the complexities of throat cancer, and the variation in diagnosis and treatment options, it's important to go to a multidisciplinary cancer center like Roswell Park that provides patients with personalized treatment for their particular cancer,” Dr. Wooten concludes. “These options can include cutting-edge treatment to obtain the best possible outcomes for patients.”