Fact Sheet: What You Need to Know About Throat Cancer

Worried about throat cancer after Michael Douglas' diagnosis? Learn more.

Sept. 1, 2010 — -- About 50,000 Americans will be diagnosed with pharyngeal or laryngeal cancer this year, according to the Oral Cancer Foundation, and more than 13,000 people will die from the disease.

Despite advances in medicine, the numbers of people affected by throat cancer continues to hold steady, said Brian Hill, the founder of the Oral Cancer Foundation. In fact, Hill added, there's been a spike in throat cancer over the last decade.

Here's some more information.

What are the types of throat cancer?

The primary forms of throat cancer are laryngeal and oral pharyngeal. Laryngeal cancer, or cancer that affects the voice box, is very common among smokers. Oral pharyngeal cancer is found in the area near the hollow tube inside the neck that starts behind the nose and ends at the top of the windpipe and esophagus. Pharyngeal cancer is prevalent among smokers and non-smokers. It is linked to the human papilloma virus.

What is the link between alcohol and throat cancer?

Eighty-five percent of all head and neck cancers are related to smoking, but alcohol has also been linked to throat cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, drinkers are six times more likely to get these cancers. Some reports have found that people who smoke and drink are as much as 100 times more likely to get mouth and throat cancer than people with neither habit. According to the Centers for Disease Control, consuming 50 grams of alcohol a day, the equivalent of four drinks, doubles or triples the risk for getting mouth, voice box and throat cancer.

What is the link between HPV and throat cancer?

Plenty of non-smokers and non-drinkers are afflicted with head and neck cancers because of the human papilloma virus, a group of about 100 different viruses. Of those 100 viruses, 16 to 18 are associated with throat cancer.

What are the symptoms of throat cancer?

When the cancer is in the early stages, many patients don't recognize any symptoms. Symptoms include a prolonged sore throat or hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing and sometimes ear pain. Some may even have a swollen, hard lymph node. Even though the lymph node may be swollen, it usually is painless, which might deter a patient from visiting a doctor.

What are the usual treatments for throat cancer?

Treatment usually includes both radiation and chemotherapy. When that doesn't work, a patient may require surgery, including the removal of some or all of their voice box or a neck dissection to remove a cancerous lymph node. The treatment itself can bring life changing side effects. Radiation may cause so much pain in one's throat and mouth that patients can't eat in a traditional manner. Surgery may result in patients needing continued care for the rest of their lives.

Who Gets Throat Cancer?

Oral cancers typically impact twice as many men as women. The risk of oral cancer increases with age. Half of all oral cancers are diagnosed in people 68 years or older, according to the American Cancer Society. Still, the Oral Cancer Foundation warns that younger people are getting oral cancers because of HPV.

For Additional Resources on Throat Cancer:

National Cancer Institute: This national organization provides information used by both cancer patients and health professionals. The site provides more information on diagnoses, treatment and clinical trials. It also provides comprehensive statistics on how many people are impacted by head and neck cancers.

Mayo Clinic: The Mayo Clinic is one of the nation's premier hospitals. Its website gives information about what symptoms might be a sign of throat cancer and also how to prepare for an appointment with your doctor. Along with information about traditional treatments, it provides information about alternative medicine for throat cancer.

Support For People With Oral and Head and Neck Cancer: This non-profit organization, referred to as SPOHNC, estimates that there are 500,000 survivors of oral, head and neck cancers. It has 100 chapters nationwide that serve as support groups for those suffering from head and neck cancers.

CancerCare: CancerCare has oncology social workers on call for those suffering from cancer to call at any time to deal with the challenges of battling cancer.

The Oral Cancer Foundation: This non-profit organization's website compiles the latest news stories about oral cancer. It also provides detailed information on the link between tobacco, alcohol and the HPV virus to oral cancer. It also serves as a resource for those recovering from the disease.

Head and Neck Cancer Alliance: Formerly the Yul Brynner Head and Neck Cancer Foundation, the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance promotes awareness and provides support to cancer patients. It also organizes free screenings for head and neck cancer.

WebWhispers: WebWhispers is a worldwide Internet support group for survivors of larynx cancer and their caregivers. It also provides tips and support for those who have had a laryngectomy.