The American Cancer Society estimates that about 39,500 people in the United States were diagnosed with throat cancer in 2015. Throat cancer is a general term, but it is often used to refer to cancer of the:
Pharynx, a hollow tube between the nose and esophagus (swallowing tube) that includes the:
- Nasopharynx: The upper section, which is behind the nose
- Oropharynx: The middle section, which is behind the mouth
- Hypopharynx: The bottom section, which is behind the voice box (larynx)
Larynx, also called the voice box, which is the part of the throat containing the vocal cords that help you speak. The larynx has three parts:
- Glottis: The middle portion that contains the vocal cords
- Supraglottis: The area above the vocal cords
- Subglottis: The area below the vocal cords and above the trachea (windpipe)
Approximately half the cases of throat cancer are found in each of the larynx and pharynx. The number of new cases of smoking-related cancers, such as cancer of the larynx and many cancers of the pharynx, is declining.
The number of new oropharynx throat cancers is increasing, however, because of a relatively new cause of this disease, human papillomavirus (HPV). Patients with this HPV-related throat cancer are less likely to smoke and may have a better outlook than patients with smoking-related throat cancer.
Types of Throat Cancer
Most throat cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This means they develop in the squamous cells that line the throat.
Other less frequent types of throat cancer include cancers of the minor salivary glands.
Causes and Risk Factors of Throat Cancer
Anything that increases your chance of getting throat cancer is a risk factor. People who smoke, especially those who drink alcohol, are at the most at risk for developing throat cancer. Read more about MD Anderson's smoking cessation clinical trials.
Another risk factor for throat cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through sexual contact, particularly oral sex.
Other risk factors include:
- Gender: Men are up to five times more likely to get cancer of the throat than women.
- Race: African American men have the highest risk of getting throat cancer.
- Age: Most cases occur over the age of 65.
- Exposure to certain chemicals, including nickel, asbestos and sulfuric acid fumes
Behavioral and lifestyle changes can help prevent throat cancer. Visit our prevention and screening section to learn how to manage your risk.
In rare cases, throat cancer can be passed down from one generation to the next. Genetic counseling may be right for you. Visit our genetic testing page to learn more.