Throat cancer – what you need to know to reduce your risk

Just recently singer Celine Dion opened up about her beloved husband’s tragic death, Rene Angelil, from throat cancer.  Rene joins a list of several other famous people who have either had this form of cancer or have succumbed to it – actress Lana Turner, actors Michael Douglas, Sean Connery, Bob Denver and author Michael Crichton.

Incidence of throat cancer

Throat cancer is not one of the more common cancers talked about as it makes up only 3 to 5 percent of all cancer cases in the United States.  Approximately 24,000 to 39,000 cases of it are generally diagnosed each year causing more than 11,000 deaths annually.  The American Cancer Society estimated that 39,500 people in the United States were diagnosed with throat in 2015.  It is more common in men than women and is more likely to affect people age 50 and older.

Defining throat cancer

Cancers that develop in your throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx) or the tonsils are all considered throat cancers.  Our throat is a muscular tube beginning behind our nose and ends in the neck.  Cancer of the throat often begins in the flat cells lining the inside of the throat and most are considered to be squamous cell carcinomas. 

Approximately half of the cases of throat cancer are found in each of the larynx and pharynx. 

Risk factors

There are certain risk factors that do seem to play a role in increasing the likelihood of developing throat cancer.  They include the following:

·         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

·         Smoking or using smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco)

·         Excessive alcohol use

·         Having the human papillomavirus (HPV)

·         A diet lacking in fruits and vegetables

·         Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)


Common symptoms of throat cancer may include:

·         Difficulty swallowing also known as dysphagia

·         Changes in your voice such as hoarseness or not speaking clearly

·         Ear pain

·         A cough that doesn’t go away

·         Swelling of the eyes, jaw, throat or neck

·         A sore throat

·         Unexplained weight loss

·         A lump or sore that doesn’t heal

Any of the above symptoms that are new or are not going away, needs to be discussed with a doctor in order to discover the cause and to rule out throat cancer.  If it is throat cancer, the sooner it is discovered and treated, the greater chance of survival.

Reducing risk of throat cancer

Like many cancers, there is no proven way to prevent throat cancer but there are steps each of us can take to at least reduce our risk.  Here is what you can do:

·         Stop smoking and/or using chewing tobacco. It is best not to start smoking to begin with but if you already do, quit.  Discuss with your doctor on how to do this as there are many ways this can be done. 

·         If you drink alcohol, always do so in moderation.  Moderation for women is defined as no more than one drink a day and for men, no more than two drinks a day. 

·         Eat more fruits and vegetables.  Produce is full of important vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals which can get the lining of the throat healthy.  Choose colorful fruits and vegetables consuming at least 5- 7 servings a day. 

·         Take steps to avoid getting HPV. It is believed that some throat cancers are caused by the sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus (HPV).  Limit your number of sexual partners and use a condom every time you have sex.