The throat is important in eating, breathing and speaking. To accomplish these different tasks, the throat is divided into two main parts. The pharynx is the avenue through which food travels to the stomach and air is sent to the lungs. The larynx (sometimes called a voice box) allows us to speak and also protects the airway from food when we eat.
Throat cancer, a type of head and neck cancer, can be found in the pharynx or larynx. It most often affects squamous cells, or thin, flat cells that line the surface of these organs. The majority of people diagnosed with throat cancer are tobacco users and/or alcohol consumers. In recent years, an increasing number of cases of throat cancer are being diagnosed in people with certain viral infections, including human papillomavirus (HPV), a common sexually transmitted disease, and the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes “mono.”
Pharyngeal cancer is more common than laryngeal cancer. Combined, these diagnoses are given to some 31,000 people in the United States each year. Throat cancer affects more men than women, most likely due to the fact that more men use alcohol and/or tobacco. While people over the age of 55 are at highest risk for developing throat cancer, it’s growing more common in younger people due to the increased prevalence of HPV.
The most common treatments for throat cancers include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Targeted therapy may be used to treat advanced forms of throat cancer.
“There are a wide variety of ways to treat throat cancer, depending on the location and stage,” says Yale Medicine’s Heather Osborn, MD, a cancer surgeon who specializes in head and neck cancer. “Working with a multidisciplinary team of experts, like the ones at Yale Medicine, ensures that all treatment options are considered to make sure that you have the best possible treatment plan for you.”