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Throat cancer

3-minute read

Throat cancer refers to cancer that begins in the throat.

Throat cancer can be successfully treated if it is diagnosed early. If you have any concerns, make an appointment to visit your doctor.

What is throat cancer?

The throat (also called pharynx) is a tube that runs from the back of the nose to your gullet (oesophagus) and the windpipe (trachea).

Throat cancer occurs when malignant tumours grow in the pharynx or larynx (voice box), oesophagus or thyroid. Cancers that grow in the throat area, sinuses, tongue or salivary glands are called head and neck cancers.

What causes throat cancer?

You are at an increased risk of throat cancer if you smoke (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) and drink alcohol, especially if you have 3 or more drinks a day.

Other risk factors include:

Throat cancer symptoms

People with throat cancer might have some or all of the following:

  • pain in the throat or around the breastbone
  • a sore throat or cough that won’t go away
  • a hoarse voice
  • trouble swallowing
  • feeling like there's something stuck in their throat
  • blood in their phlegm
  • shortness of breath
  • lumps in the neck or throat
  • sudden weight loss

Throat cancer diagnosis

Your doctor will talk to you and examine you. You might be referred to a specialist such as an ear nose and throat specialist or a head and neck surgeon.

You might have an examination of your throat and larynx using an endoscope, a thin, flexible, lighted tube with a camera at the tip. This could be a nasendoscopy, laryngoscopy or bronchoscopy.

Your doctor might send you for tests such as:

Throat cancer treatment

The main treatment for throat cancer is surgery or radiotherapy. Chemotherapy might also be offered, usually with radiotherapy.

Living with throat cancer

You may feel your cancer experience doesn’t end on the last day of treatment. Take time to adjust to the physical and emotional changes and re-establish a new daily routine at your own pace. Your doctor will continue to monitor your health and confirm the cancer hasn’t come back.

If you have surgery to treat your throat cancer, you might have problems after surgery, such as:

  • a sore throat
  • breathing difficulties, which might mean you need a breathing hole (tracheostomy) in your lower neck
  • problems eating, which might mean you need a feeding tube inserted
  • trouble swallowing
  • scars and wounds that need time to heal

If you have more extensive surgery, you might have to adjust to greater changes. Talk to your doctor about what to expect or for referral to support services and resources.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2018

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