Throat cancer continues to be an adversity for thousands of people worldwide. The advent of chemotherapy and others such as laser surgery have favored the survival of the majority of these patients.
But is there a way to avoid it? Are there any symptoms to watch out for? These and more questions will be answered below, where we will explain from what it is, its main factors to its current treatments.
What is throat cancer?
Generally, it refers to cancers that appear in the pharynx or larynx (where the vocal cords are located).
These, along with cancers of the tongue, thyroid, esophagus, salivary glands, ear, nose, and paranasal sinuses, are known as ” head and neck cancers.”
Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common of all. In the US alone, it is estimated that approximately 40,000 people are diagnosed with this type of tumor. (1)
Carcinoma can affect the different components of the upper aerodigestive tract , which are the pharynx, larynx, and esophagus. Depending on its location, the chances of survival vary.
Note: The larynx is a small chamber located in the throat, where the vocal cords are housed, responsible for the intonation and articulation of words.
Causes of throat cancer
Malignant or benign tumors are the end product of multiple cellular and metabolic pathways that converge and give rise to these cellular aberrations. Next, we will mention some of the most common associations.
Cigarette and alcohol consumption
They are major risk factors for almost any type of cancer . Tobacco is composed of hundreds of pro-inflammatory and pre-cancerous substances , which modify the integrity of the cells of the esophagus or pharynx.
Important: A study published in the Alcohol Research & Health magazine reiterates the strong association between both phenomena. A person who smokes and drinks alcohol constantly is 300 times more likely to develop cancer in the larynx. (two)
Certain dietary patterns seem to have a certain relationship with the risk of cancer. People with a diet low in polyunsaturated fats, vitamin C, E, and fruits and vegetables in general, show a higher risk.
Many of these essential nutrients act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and regulators of the cell division cycle. They may not be the only cause, but they could contribute to the development of tumors.
Important: Chronic alcoholism is also associated with nutritional deficits, since the person’s digestive system is unable to absorb the necessary nutrients. Both factors could act together.
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is a whole family of viruses. Some are relatively benign, while others, such as HPV types 16 and 18, have oncogenic potential (ie capable of producing tumors).
Generally, they produce warts and neoplasms on the male and female genitalia, but they can affect other regions, as occurs in oropharyngeal cancer . Oro-genital sex could explain how HPV lodges in the larynx or other parts of the neck.
Under normal circumstances, gastric acid is not in contact with the mucosa of the esophagus. But, the repeated exposure of this acidity to the esophageal cells (as occurs with reflux patients), triggers a series of cellular changes.
In response to this injurious stimulus, the esophagus produces distinct cells unusual in the area to resist the acid. However, the body does not stop there. The cells continue to change, until they finally produce a neoplasm (tumor).
symptoms of throat cancer
Depending on the location of the cancer, its degree of evolution and the characteristics of the person, the symptoms vary . Next, we will explain some of the most outstanding ones.
Pain when swallowing
If the cancer is located in the esophagus, the person will have difficulty swallowing food and may even experience pain. The person describes this difficulty as “if something was lodged in his throat.”
Note : This sign, by itself, can be alarming since it indicates a possible obstruction of the digestive tract, so we recommend seeing a doctor.
Sore throat and ear
Depending on the size and which structures it affects, cancer of the larynx or pharynx can cause discomfort in the throat, or even pain.
The obstruction may be so significant that the person may have difficulty breathing.
If the cancer is large enough or lodged in the vocal cords, the person may experience gradual changes in their tone of voice, causing hoarseness.
Important: Depending on the degree of damage, there may even be damage to the vocal cords that requires surgical reconstruction.
cough and congestion
Laryngeal cancer is also responsible for inducing persistent and chronic cough in patients. In more serious cases, the person may even cough up blood.
Due to the connection between the nasal passages and the neck, any involvement of the latter can also affect the production of mucus , inducing congestion in patients.
Rapid and unexplained weight loss in patients is usually an alarming sign that may point to a type of cancer.
To highlight: 40% of patients diagnosed with cancer present sudden weight loss as their initial sign, according to data from the American Society of Clinical Oncology. (3)
There is the possibility of oropharyngeal cancer , if a lump is detected in the neck or throat, but other phenomena can also be explained, so we suggest going to a professional doctor immediately if you notice a lump in this area.
Note: The use of computed tomography, as we will see later, can help to identify the origin of these bumps.
Treatment for throat cancer
Fortunately, laryngeal cancer does not mean it is deadly. If it is detected in time and various strategies are applied , the chances of survival are favored. Next, we will explain some of these.
Once the presence of a cancer in the larynx or other region has been confirmed (either by biopsy or CT scan), doctors should discuss with patients the various options for it.
Note: Total or partial laryngectomy (removal of the larynx or part of it), is one of these. It can be done through an endoscopy or openly.
The advancement of surgical techniques allows the extirpation of the tumor, preserving the function of the larynx.
In addition to removal, laser surgery is also an option for patients, especially if the tumor is located high in the larynx or is still in early stages of evolution.
Laser therapy consists of the application of a thin laser beam focused only on the area where the cancer is located, in order to eliminate it or at least reduce its size, facilitating its removal.
Radiotherapy and chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs. These can be administered orally or intravenously . The purpose is to reduce the number of cancer cells in the larynx until they are extinct from the body.
Chemotherapy may be used before or after surgery or radiation therapy , to ensure complete removal of cells that have escaped the surgeon’s or X-ray’s reach or to shrink them so that removal is effective.
Targeted therapy drugs
This type of treatment is technically part of chemotherapy, but with a different approach. The latter seeks the complete elimination of cancer cells, while targeted therapy attacks specific substances inside the cell.
What are these substances? Molecules such as proteins that have undergone a mutation and are part of the chain that produces the infinite replication of these aberrant cells. That is, reverse the change.
Note: This can block or turn off chemical signals, change mutant proteins, make the cell a target for the immune system, or even bring toxic substances inside cancer cells.
By various mechanisms, laryngeal cancer cells manage to evade the action of the immune system , particularly those that break away from their original site and metastasize to another site.
Immunotherapy seeks to correct this. There are different classes, such as monoclonal antibody therapy, where specific antibodies are created in laboratories to search for and infiltrate the tumor.
Once inside, these antibodies act as a “target” or “signal,” telling the rest of the immune system where to attack.
Important: Combination therapy could represent an alternative to harmful X-rays or the toxic effect of chemotherapy.
Throat Cancer Prevention
Until science is able to fully understand the molecular and genetic bases of cancer, absolute prevention against it will not be possible.
That does not mean that we should not avoid certain habits that increase the risk of these. Next, we will explain what they should not do.
Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
Smoking increases the risk of cancer up to 10 times more than non-smokers. Consuming alcohol persistently and in large quantities also increases the risk.
Public efforts to raise public awareness about the risk of tobacco have had a positive impact, according to figures released by the Center for Disease Control. (4)
Tip: We recommend reducing or completely eliminating the smoking habit in your life, replacing it with healthier habits, such as exercise or meditation.
Maintain a balanced diet
The link between diet and cancers is still under investigation, but certain connections have been identified between the two.
The American Cancer Society recommends adopting a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and avoiding pro-inflammatory foods , such as red meat, processed foods, and sugary foods and drinks. (5)
Important: Diet is one of the pillars of a full and healthy life. Without it, you’ll be burdened with a multitude of health problems, not just cancer.
Protect yourself from HPV
HPV can cause up to six types of cancer, so we must protect ourselves and our loved ones from this virus. The HPV vaccine is safe , effective, and has long-term effects.
Children between the ages of 9 and 12 should receive the injection. For those older adolescents or adults who have not been vaccinated, they should also receive it, although they will need up to 3 injections.
- Throat cancer can refer to cancer that affects the pharynx, larynx, or esophagus.
- Smoking and chronic alcoholism represent the main risk factors for this condition.
- Difficulty speaking, swallowing, and unexplained weight loss represent alarming signs and symptoms.
- An adequate diet, the cessation of harmful habits and adopting healthier ones, will reduce the risk of suffering from this disease.