Cancers are lumps or masses of abnormal cells that are capable of uncontrolled proliferation. Throat cancer has been loosely used to refer to cancers which affect any part of the throat extending from behind the nose down to the oesophagus. These include the nasopharynx, oropharynx, hypopharynx and sometimes the larynx otherwise known as the voice box.
In view of the aforementioned, throat cancer can also mean any of the following depending on which part of the throat is involved: hypopharyngeal cancer, laryngeal cancer, laryngopharyngeal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, oropharyngeal cancer and pharyngeal cancer.
Furthermore, in the majority of cases, these cancers usually arise from the squamous epithelial lining of the moist mucosal surfaces inside the throat. Discussed below are some critical facts you need to know about cancers of the throat:
1. Oral sex can lead to HPV-related cancers
Several studies have established a link between oral sex and increased incidence of Human Papilloma Virus – associated cancers of the throat especially oropharyngeal and laryngeal cancers. A virulent strain of the virus known as HPV 16 has been implicated in this. Apart from HPV 18, the same strain (HPV 16) is equally involved in the aetiology of cervical cancer among women. The implication of these facts is that individuals who indulge in oral sex are more likely to develop these cancers.
2. Smoking and excess alcohol increase the risk of throat cancers
Research has shown that tobacco smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol are the most important risk factors for throat cancers, accounting for up to 75% of all cases. This is especially true when the two factors are combined. Consequently, individuals who smoke and drink heavily are 5 – 25 times more likely to suffer from cancers of the throat compared to others. More still, another staggering fact is that for up to 20 years after cessation of smoking, the person’s risk of throat cancer is still significantly raised.
3. Preserved foods may predispose to Nasopharyngeal Cancer
Preserved foods such as salted fish, especially when consumed during childhood may increase the risk of developing nasopharyngeal carcinoma later in life. This is probably due to the presence of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) nitrosamines found in these food products. Conversely, fresh and raw vegetables may be protective against nasopharyngeal cancers.
4. Exposure to certain substances at your workplace may increase your risk of throat cancers
It has been shown that occupational exposure to substances like asbestos, paint and diesel can lead to cancers of the larynx while prolonged wood dust exposure can cause nasopharyngeal cancer.
5. A number of treatment options exist for treatment of throat cancers
Several factors including stage of cancer, exact location of tumour as well as patient’s age and health status come to play in determining the appropriate modality of treatment for throat cancers. However, some available options include surgery for the removal or excision of the tumour, radiation therapy, targeted therapy, chemotherapy or a combination of these towards ensuring the best possible outcome in patients.
6. Throat Cancers may recur even after successful treatment
It’s important to note that people who have undergone successful treatment for throat cancers may suffer a second primary cancer especially those who continue to smoke or drink alcohol. To this extent, smokers and heavy drinkers who have undergone successful treatment for these conditions are usually counselled to quit these bad habits in their own interest.
7. Symptoms and Signs of Throat Cancers usually depend on the areas affected
Patients suffering from nasopharyngeal cancer may present with bilateral swollen lymph nodes in the neck. In addition, they may also experience nasal symptoms like nasal discharge/congestion and bleeding from the nose (epistaxis). Furthermore, patients may complain of ear symptoms like discharge, tinnitus or deafness if the cancer blocks the eustachian tube or extends directly into the ears. Individuals with laryngeal cancers are more likely to complain of difficult breathing (dyspnoea) or swallowing (dysphagia). Also, they often experience voice changes (hoarseness) when the cancer invades the vocal cords. Halitosis (bad breath), ear pain and neck mass are some other symptoms such patients may have.
8. Males are more likely to experience cancers of the throat than females
Epidemiological studies among several populations have shown that males are two to three times more likely than females to suffer from throat cancers. In the same vein, the risk of developing any of these cancers is significantly increased after the age of 50 years.