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Throat cancer

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What is throat cancer?

Throat cancer generally refers to cancers that start in the pharynx or larynx (voice box), but can also refer to cancers that start in the oesophagus (food pipe) or thyroid. Some cancers which begin in the throat area, as well as the tongue, salivary glands, sinuses, nose or ear, are classified as head and neck cancers.

The two main types of cancer that are commonly referred to as throat cancers are pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers - cancer of the pharynx and the larynx.

Throat cancer symptoms

Symptoms for throat cancers can include:

  • throat pain
  • shortness of breath
  • persistent sore throat or cough
  • coughing up blood
  • changes to the voice such as hoarseness
  • difficulties swallowing
  • feeling there is something stuck in the throat
  • lumps in the neck or throat
  • sudden unexplained weight loss.

Causes of throat cancers

Risk factors for throat cancers include:

  • smoking
  • excessive alcohol consumption
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV)
  • poor diet
  • family history of cancer.

Diagnosis for throat cancers

Tests to diagnose pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer may include:

  • physical examination
  • biopsy
  • endoscopy of the larynx
  • ultrasound
  • X-rays
  • blood tests
  • scans such as CT, MRI or PET.

Treatment for throat cancers

Treatment will depend on the extent of the surgery.


Tests for throat cancers will confirm if you have cancer and how far it has spread. This is called staging and will help your doctors determine the best treatment options for you. Treatments for throat cancers include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy, or a combination of one or more of these.


Depending on the size of the tumour, you may be recommended surgery to have it removed. The type of surgery will also depend on the location of the cancer and may involve removing part of the pharynx or the partial or full removal of the larynx, thyroid or tongue.


After surgery, you may also receive radiotherapy (also known as radiation therapy). In some cases radiotherapy will be the principal treatment type.


In some instances, chemotherapy may be required along with radiation, particularly if the tumours are large or the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Chemotherapy may also be used to shrink tumours prior to surgery.

Palliative care

In some cases of throat cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of throat cancer.


Screening for throat cancers

There is currently no screening for throat cancers available in Australia.

Prognosis of throat cancers

Your doctor will not be able to predict the exact course of the disease, as it will depend on individual circumstances such as the type of throat cancer you have and how far it has spread, your age, medical history and overall health.

Preventing throat cancers

Around 60% of pharyngeal and laryngeal cancers in Australia are caused by smoking; around 30% are caused by excess alcohol consumption. So quitting smoking and moderating alcohol consumption will significantly reduce your risk of developing throat cancer.


Understanding Head and Neck Cancers, Cancer Council Australia  © 2019. Last medical review of this booklet: September 2019.


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This page was last updated on: Wednesday, November 13, 2019

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