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What Is Pharyngeal Cancer?

Pharyngeal cancer is a malignancy of the throat. A member of the family of oral cancers, pharyngeal cancer can affect any area of the throat, including the tonsils and voice box. Frequently associated with the use of tobacco products, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 40% of cancers worldwide are linked to tobacco use, with 90% of those cancers affecting the oral cavity. Pharyngeal cancer treatment is dependent on several factors, including the positioning and staging of the cancer.

Commonly known as throat cancer, pharyngeal cancer may be diagnosed with the aid of imaging tests. If cancer is suspected, an endoscopic examination of the throat may be performed to evaluate the area in question. An endoscope, which is a tiny camera mounted on a small, flexible tube, is inserted into the throat for a visual examination. A sample of the anomalous tissue is taken for laboratory analysis. If the sample is deemed malignant, additional imaging tests, including a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, may be performed to evaluate the condition of the throat and determine the staging of the malignancy.

Staging the cancer is critical in determining appropriate treatment options. Tumors that haven't invaded surrounding tissues are considered stage one. As the tumor becomes more invasive, it is given a staging of two or three, depending on its aggressiveness and the tissues affected. The most aggressive malignancies are given a staging of four.

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Pharyngeal cancer is a broad term used to describe a range of malignancies affecting the throat. The categorization of one’s cancer is determined by its location. For instance, if the cancer originates with the voice box, it is known as subglottic cancer. Likewise, if the cancer starts in the upper portion of the throat, behind the nose, it is known as nasopharyngeal cancer.

It is important to understand that all forms of throat cancer originate with anomalous cell mutation and reproduction. The affected cells mature and reproduce without dying. As the number of cells continues to increase and collect, a tumor forms.

Though it is unclear what instigates the cellular mutation responsible for tumor development, there are several factors that can increase one’s risk for pharyngeal cancer. Aside from the use of tobacco in all its forms, asbestos exposure and the regular, excessive use of alcohol are also considered contributory factors. Individuals with human papillomavirus (HPV) are also considered at risk for developing pharyngeal cancer.

Early signs of throat cancer include persistent cough and sore throat. Individuals often experience discomfort when they swallow, which may cause the person to eat less, leading to unintended weight loss. As pharyngeal cancer progresses, the individual’s voice may undergo changes and start to sound gravelly.

Depending on the location and staging of the cancer, surgery may involve the excision of just the tumor or the tumor and surrounding tissues. Extensive cancers can necessitate the partial or complete removal of the throat, voice box, and lymph nodes in the neck. Subsequent anti-cancer therapy can involve the administration of chemo- and radiation therapies, which carry significant risk for side effects, including nausea, weight loss, and fatigue.

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