Throat cancer

When doctors talk about throat cancers, they usually mean the parts called the pharynx and the larynx (voicebox). You may hear some people use the word ‘throat’ for cancers of the thyroid, oesophagus (gullet) or wind pipe (trachea), but these are treated differently.

The biggest risk factors for throat cancer are smoking and high alcohol consumption.

Types of throat cancer

Oropharynx – this is the middle part of the throat, behind the mouth. It includes the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), the base of the tongue (the part you can’t see), the tonsils and the side walls of the throat.

An additional risk factor for oropharyngeal cancer is infection with human papilloma virus (HPV).

Cancers that develop in the oropharynx are called oropharyngeal cancers. Patients may notice persistent or worsening sore throat, earache, difficulty swallowing, a visible lump, a change in their voice or lump in the neck. 

A diagram showing the anatomy of the Pharynx. This includes the pharynx, which is made up of the nasopharynx, the oropharynx and the hypopharynx. It also show the oesophagus, the trachea, the hyoid bone, the larynx, the oral cavity and the nasal cavity.

Hypopharynx – this is the lower part of the throat. Cancers in this area are called hypopharyngeal cancers. Patients may notice persistent or worsening difficulty swallowing, painful swallowing earache, change in the voice, weight loss or lumps in the neck.

The voice box (larynx) – this is a short passageway in front of the lower part of the throat. It contains the vocal cords or “voice box.”  Patients may experience persistent or worsening hoarse voice, pain, difficulty swallowing and noisy breathing.

Treatments for throat cancers can include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy.

Last updated: April 2023