Warning Signs of Throat Cancer

dentist discussing throat cancer with patient

A dentist looks at more than the teeth. During your routine dental visit, your dentist may perform a regular cancer screening to evaluate your risk of developing cancer in the throat. Many of the risk factors for cancer are simple lifestyle choices. As such, their goal at these regular exams is not only to evaluate your risk of cancer but to offer information that can empower you to minimize your own chance of developing a debilitating disease. You can do your part by briefing yourself on the warning signs of cancer in the throat region.

What Is Throat Cancer?

Throat cancer refers to a collection of cancers in the throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) or tonsils. According to the MD Anderson Cancer Center, more than 30,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with a cancer in this head and neck region in 2018.

As the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) describes, there are many subtypes of cancers of the throat, including:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma — the most common throat cancer in the United States.
  • Adenocarcinoma, which develops in the throat glands.
  • Sarcoma, which forms in the neck muscle fibers.
  • Laryngeal cancer which occurs in the larynx.
  • Pharyngeal cancer, which can develop in the nasopharynx (upper part of the throat behind the nose), oropharynx (middle part of the throat behind the mouth) and hypopharynx (above the voice box).

Risk Factors for Throat Cancers

There are many risk factors for these types of cancer, as the MD Anderson Cancer Center notes. Human papillomavirus accounts for 70% of all oropharyngeal cancer cases. Using tobacco products or drinking alcohol may also increase your risk. Individuals who are older, typically above the age of 60, are the most likely to develop these types of cancer. In addition, men are typically five times as likely as women to get throat cancer.

Warning Signs

Head and neck cancer is usually accompanied by generic warning signs that could signal that it's time for a checkup. The CTCA notes that the earliest warning sign is a persistent sore throat lasting more than two weeks. As the disease progresses, you can develop:

  • A cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Vocal changes
  • Ear or jaw pain
  • White sores in the mouth
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches
  • Swelling of the eyes, jaw, throat or neck
  • Bleeding in the mouth and nose

These cancers can spread to nearby regions, leading to other signs and symptoms. For example, throat cancers may spread to the mouth, lymph nodes or lips.

Exams and Diagnosis

Regular screening can help you know and minimize your risk for cancer, and it allows your dentist or doctor to determine if there is a developing tumor. The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center recommends getting an annual physical exam of the head and neck from your primary physician. Those who are at higher risk of developing throat cancer should get more frequent exams.

Your dentist will assess for lesions in the mouth and may evaluate abnormal tissue with staining procedures, as the National Cancer Institute describes. If a suspected cancer tumor is growing, your doctor will collect a biopsy of the potentially cancerous cells and may obtain imaging with scans and microscope procedures.

Treatment Options

If you do develop head or neck cancer, there are treatment options. Your oncologist will work with you to decide if the best approach is surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or targeted therapy. Determining the stage of the cancer, as the CTCA describes, will help in selecting the best treatment approach. A team of doctors will help you manage the side effects of your cancer treatment, which may include oral sores and dry mouth, as the American Dental Association explains.

The thought of developing cancer is scary. However, there are steps you can take to minimize your chance of developing cancer, and your dentist can provide screening assessments at your regular checkups. When you're empowered with this knowledge, the risk of head and neck cancer can become less daunting.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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