“I’d been aware of it for a while,” says Teague, who was diagnosed with HPV-relatedthroat cancer at age 49. “But I’d had sinus problems all my life, so I didn’t think anything of it. I just assumed it was another swollen lymph node.”
“I found a little lump on my neck one day while shaving,” says the senior systems analyst, who was diagnosed with the same disease at age 48. “I remember thinking, ‘Hey, why does that side of my neck look so puffy?’ and going to my general practitioner. He told me it was probably an infection and prescribed some antibiotics.”
The most common throat cancer symptoms: painless neck lumps and swollen lymph nodes
Mark and George’s experiences are not unusual. Most people with throat cancer don’t have any symptoms. But when they do, a swollen lymph node or a painless lump in the neck are among the most common.
“Lymph nodes are essentially tiny little sieves that capture dangerous particles circulating around our bodies,” explains head and neck cancer surgeon Miriam Lango, M.D. “Sometimes, cancer cells get caught in there and start growing in place. Eventually, they form tumors that can get big enough to grow out of the lymph nodes.”
Other throat cancer symptoms, including (rarely) pain
Other MD Anderson patients have reported different throat cancer symptoms, such as news photographer Damion Smith, who lost his voice, and senior civil engineering inspector Scott Courville, who developed pain in his jaw, felt lumps in his throat and saw little white spots on his tonsils.
“Laryngitis, visible abnormalities and pain are far less common symptoms of throat cancer,” notes Lango. “Though we do occasionally see patients who report ear pain, a type of ‘referred’ pain from the tongue or throat. And, sometimes, people say it feels like something is kind of caught back there.”
Pain as a symptom of throat cancer is almost always only on one side, though. “It’s usually not in the middle,” Lango says. “And it tends to be both dull and persistent. Once it’s there, it’s always there. It never goes away. That’s a sign that it should get checked out.”
When to see a doctor for throat cancer symptoms
As a general rule, you should see a doctor about any worrisome symptoms that don’t resolve on their own within two or three weeks. But see a doctor much sooner if you experience any of the following throat cancer symptoms:
a change in your voice or ability to speak clearly
bleeding in the throat (which may be coughed or spit up)
“All of these symptoms should be considered more urgent,” explains Lango. “They might not warrant an immediate emergency room visit, but they do need to be looked into pretty quickly.”
Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have throat cancer. But it’s important to be evaluated because throat cancer is easiest to treat when it’s caught in its earliest stages.
“You’re much more likely to need a combination of treatments — such as surgery plus radiation rather than surgery alone — if you’re diagnosed in the latter stages of throat cancer,” notes Lango. “And that can mean both a longer course of treatment and more side effects. So, early diagnosis can make a huge difference.”