Throat cancer

The hypopharynx is a part of the throat that lies beside and behind your pharynx (throat). The food and liquids we swallow pass through the mouth and throat through the hypopharynx, esophagus and then into the stomach. Cancer to the tissues of the hypopharynx is called hypopharyngeal cancer. It is one of the most common types of head and neck cancer.

If the cancer is diagnosed in early stages, the five-year survival rate is 53%, but if cancer has spread to the other body parts, the survival rate is just 24%. So, knowing the signs and symptoms in the early stages is the key to get rid of this cancer.

In early stages of hypopharyngeal cancer, symptoms are not seen. However, you may have the following symptoms as cancer progresses:

  • Hoarseness and change in voice that do not go away within 2 weeks; this is the early symptom of throat cancer
  • A lump in the neck
  • Airway obstruction, noisy breathing
  • Pain or difficulty swallowing and breathing
  • Persistent sore throat and a feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Ear pain
  • Bad breath
  • Choking
  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss
  • Fatigue

These symptoms may not always indicate cancer, but may occur due to some other health conditions. If you are concerned about any of these symptoms, and if the symptoms don’t go away or get worse, then talk to your doctor immediately.

The exact cause of hypopharyngeal cancer is still not known, but scientists believe that it usually occurs when the throat cells develop mutations that make the cells grow uncontrollably, forming a tumor.

There are several risk factors associated with hypopharyngeal cancer:

  • Tobacco use (smoking or chewing)
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Lack of nutrients in the diet
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome (a disorder linked to severe anemia)
  • A virus called human papilloma virus

Some common complications with untreated throat cancer are:

  • Obstruction of the airways
  • Difficulty with swallowing
  • Loss of voice
  • Toughened skin of the neck region
  • Disfigured face and neck
  • Spread of cancer to the other parts

The doctor first examines the throat and neck to detect and diagnose hypopharyngeal cancer. Your doctor may use an endoscope to look at your throat closely during a procedure called endoscopy which helps the doctor to watch for the signs of abnormalities in your throat.

The doctor may also insert a laryngoscope in your voice box to examine vocal cords. This procedure is called laryngoscopy.

Biopsy- If the doctor finds any abnormalities during an endoscopy or laryngoscopy then he or she would pass a surgical instrument through the scope to collect a tissue sample to detect cancer and its stage.

Imaging tests- These tests include X-ray, CT scan, MRI scan and PET that help the doctor to determine the extent of cancer beyond your throat or voice box.

Your doctor would suggest appropriate thyroid cancer treatment depending on the stage of cancer, and your general health condition.

Radiation therapy

This therapy uses high-energy beams of X-rays and protons to kill the cancer cells. This therapy is most appropriate for people with early stage cancers. In advanced cancers, radiotherapy combined with chemotherapy or surgery is suitable.

Surgery

It is the common treatment for all the stages of hypopharyngeal cancer. Appropriate surgery is considered based on the location and type of your cancer.

  • Laryngopharyngectomy: Entire larynx (i.e. voice box) and a part of pharynx is removed
  • Partial laryngopharyngectomy: A part of larynx and pharynx are removed. This surgery prevents loss of the voice.
  • Neck dissection: Lymph nodes and other tissues in the neck are removed

Even after removing the tumor, your doctor may suggest chemotherapy or radiation therapy to kill any cancer cells that are left. This is called adjuvant therapy.

Chemotherapy

Drugs are used to kill cancer cells. Cancer chemotherapy is often used along with radiation therapy as certain chemotherapy drugs make cancer cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. Discuss with your doctor regarding the associated side effects.

Cetuximab is one targeted drug therapy approved for the treatment of throat cancer in some patients.

As discussed, throat related cancers are mainly caused by smoking and drinking. So, better give up the habit to prevent the risk of cancer and to improve the quality of life.