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Most commonly, throat cancer refers to cancer of the following structures:
Pharynx, the tube through which we swallow. It is divided into three major sections:
- Nasopharynx: The upper section, which is behind the nose
- Oropharynx: The middle section, which is behind the mouth and includes the tonsils, soft palate and base or posterior-most portion of the tongue
- Hypopharynx: The bottom section, which marks the transition between the pharynx behind the voice box (larynx)
Larynx, also called the voice box. It contains the vocal cords and allows us to speak. It is critical in protecting our airway. It also acts as a valve that opens for us to breathe, and makes sure things we swallow go into the stomach. The larynx is divided into three major 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)
Most cases of throat cancer are found in the oropharynx.
The number of new cases of smoking-related cancers, such as cancer of the larynx, hypopharynx and oropharynx, is declining. The number of new oropharynx throat cancers is dramatically increasing, however, because the discovery of the association with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
The HPV virus has been identified with cervical cancer in women for many years, but has become a newly identified cause of throat cancer. Patients with HPV-related throat cancer are generally younger and are less likely to smoke. HPV-related throat cancers may have a better outcome than the non-HPV, smoking-related throat cancer.
Types of Throat Cancer
The lining of the throat is made up of squamous cells. Thus, most throat cancers are squamous cell carcinomas.
Other less frequent types of throat cancer include cancers of the minor salivary glands.
Throat Cancer Causes and Risk Factors
Anything that increases your chance of getting throat cancer is a risk factor. Tobacco use is the most notable risk factor for developing throat cancer, and when combined with drinking alcohol, can increase the risk even more. Read more about MD Anderson's smoking cessation clinical trials.
Throat cancer can be discovered in the nonsmoker as well. Today, the human papilloma virus (HPV) this is the most common risk factor for cancer found in the oropharynx. HPV is spread through sexual contact, including oral sex, though the development of cancer is usually not seen for many years after the original viral exposure. Not all patients who are infected with HPV are subject to cancer.
Other risk factors include:
- Gender: Men are up to five times more likely to get cancer of the throat than women.
- Age: Traditionally, most cases occur over the age of 60, but HPV-related cancers commonly occur in the 50s.
- Exposure to certain chemicals, including nickel, asbestos and sulfuric acid fumes
Learn more about throat cancer:
Why choose MD Anderson for throat cancer care?
MD Anderson has led the way in developing the multidisciplinary approach to cancer therapy. The doctors of different specialties, therapists and other members of your care team take time to appropriately stage the cancer and assess the effect of the cancer on your overall function and wellbeing. They then meet to discuss your individual situation to create the best treatment plan to attack and defeat your cancer. This individualized approach to cancer care has led to the development of new methods to treat throat cancer. We tailor your care to include advanced therapies that give you the highest chance for successful treatment while keeping the ability to eat, speak and live a normal, healthy life.
Innovative treatments include minimally invasive surgical techniques, new radiation treatment approaches and targeted and immune-based therapies that help your body fight the cancer.
Because throat cancer and its treatment often affect breathing, hearing, talking and appearance, we make sure every patient receives full rehabilitation support, including occupational, physical and speech therapy, and/or reconstructive surgery. Dental experts design and place highly specialized implants. Surgeons and oncologists work closely with experts in Speech Pathology and Audiology who have special expertise in restoring speech and swallowing after throat surgery.
Because the highly skilled specialists at MD Anderson have the opportunity to treat patients from all over the world, our Head and Neck program is one of the most active programs in the United States. This means we are able to offer a wide range of clinical trials (research studies) for various types and stages of disease. Our physicians primarily focus their knowledge and skills on treating only cancer patients, and therefore have the most up-to-date information and technology for this disease.
And at MD Anderson you're surrounded by the strength of one of the nation's largest and most experienced cancer centers, which has all the services needed to treat the whole person – not just the disease.
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HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot
More than 70% of oropharyngeal cancer cases are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, for which a safe and effective vaccine currently exists. MD Anderson’s HPV-Related Cancers Moon Shot® aims to improve outcomes for oropharyngeal cancer patients through prevention initiatives and new treatments.Learn more