Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery (Ear, Nose, and Throat)
Head & Neck Pharynx
About Cancer of the Pharynx | How it Occurs | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Care
About Cancer of the Pharynx
Cancer of the pharynx, also called pharyngeal cancer, is a malignant tumor in the passageway leading from the mouth and back of the nose to the esophagus. The cancer can spread to other areas throughout and near the throat. It may also spread (metastasize) to other parts of the body and become life threatening. Treatment is most successful during the early stages of the disease.
How Cancer of the Pharynx Occurs
Although the cause of pharyngeal cancer is unknown, it is most common among heavy smokers and people who drink large amounts of alcohol. It is seven times more common in men than women and generally occurs after age 50.
Untreated cancer often spreads throughout the throat to the lymph nodes and into the bloodstream, where the cancer is carried to other parts of the body. As long as you receive no treatment, the cancer will continue to spread and become life-threatening.
Symptoms of Cancer of the Pharynx
There may be no symptoms to warn of possible cancer. If symptoms are present, they are similar to those of upper respiratory infections such as colds and other viruses. The following symptoms may occur as the cancer worsens:
- Slight sore throat that lasts for more than two weeks
- Hoarseness or a change in your voice so that your voice sounds muffled
- Trouble with swallowing or a feeling of incomplete swallowing
- Earache or blocked ear
- Coughing up bloody phlegm
- Swollen lymph node in the neck
- Hard lump in the throat or in the neck lymph node
- A large tumor can block the throat, cutting off the air supply, possibly causing you to pass out or suffocate.
Diagnosing Cancer of the Pharynx
Your health care provider will ask how long you have had a sore throat or felt a lump in the neck. He or she will then examine the throat.
Your health care provider may want to use a special instrument, a lighted viewing tube, to get a better look at the pharynx and the surrounding area. Your provider may also want to take a biopsy. He or she will take a small sample of tissue from the affected area and have it analyzed to determine if it contains cancer cells.
Treating Cancer of the Pharynx
Your health care provider, ENT specialist, and oncology (cancer) specialist will determine the treatment for cancer of the pharynx based on the following factors:
- Stage of tumor
- Location of tumor
- Extent of malignancy
Your health care provider may recommend the following treatments:
- Radiation therapy to shrink the malignant tumor. Radiation therapy may be the only treatment, or it may be combined with surgery.
- Surgery to remove the tumor. Plastic surgery may be desirable or necessary if an operation is extensive. Tissue removed from another part of your body would be used to replace a part of the pharynx.
- Chemotherapy with or without radiation treatments and with or without an operation if the tumor is large and has spread. Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs to destroy cancer cells and help stop them from spreading.
You may have side effects or complications from radiation or chemotherapy such as:
- Hair loss, baldness
- Reduced ability to fight infections
- Sunburn-like redness of the skin where radiation is used
Your health care provider may suggest medicines for nausea and vomiting. Your provider may prescribe corticosteroid drugs to help with possible side effects of cancer-fighting treatments.
If cancer of the pharynx is found at an early stage, these treatments may result in a complete cure. In advanced cases, these steps may stop the growth for a while and ease the symptoms. The cure rate for this type of cancer varies with stage, location, and type of tumor found.
The effects of cancer of the pharynx will vary depending upon the stage in which the tumor is detected, and when treatment begins.
Caring for Cancer of the Pharynx
- Call your health care provider if you have a sore throat or blocked ear that continues for more than two weeks, or experience a feeling of incomplete swallowing that doesn't go away.
- Avoid use of tobacco products in any form.
- Avoid heavy use of alcoholic beverages.
- If radiation therapy is part of your care, see the dentist recommended by your health care provider for special care before treatment starts.
- Eat well-balanced meals and maintain overall good health practices.
- As your throat becomes sore from radiation treatments, maintain your weight by eating frequent meals and bland foods. Also use liquid nutrition supplements.
- Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy treatments ordered by your health care provider.
- Ask your health care provider what side effects you can expect to have from the radiation or chemotherapy. There are sometimes severe side effects, such as sore throat and damage to your teeth.
- Contact national and local self-help organizations, such as the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Center, 800-4-CANCER.
- If possible, locate a support group for cancer patients to help you during your illness and recovery.
- Maintain a hopeful and positive outlook throughout treatment and recovery.