Throat Cancer

As the longest-running multidisciplinary clinic in Louisville, the head and neck cancer team at the UofL Brown Cancer Center brings together a team of experts to treat cancers of the throat with cutting-edge techniques and therapies.

Overview

As the longest running clinic in Louisville, the Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Clinic at UofL Brown Cancer Center brings together a team of experts to treat cancers of the throat with cutting-edge techniques and therapies.

Our expert team includes radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, surgeons, dentists, speech pathologists and nutritionists. These specially trained experts customize your care, including the most advanced therapies with the least impact on your body. Our head and neck cancer doctors don’t just specialize in cancer; they specialize specifically in treatment of throat cancer.

At UofL Brown Cancer Center, your care for throat cancer is personalized and may include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or other treatments such as targeted therapies or immunotherapy. We utilize treatments that have allowed many patients to avoid radical surgery. If surgery is part of your treatment, you can count on our nationally recognized surgeons, who use some of the latest, least-invasive techniques.

Throat cancer and its treatment can affect talking, swallowing, eating and breathing. Our speech pathologists, nutritionists and cancer rehab physicians are involved in your care from the very beginning, to minimize the long-term effects of treatment and promote strength and well-being during treatment.

At UofL Brown Cancer Center, we treat all of you, not just your cancer.

Throat Cancer Types

Throat cancer is a general term, but it is often used to refer to cancer of the:

Pharynx, a hollow tube between the nose and esophagus (swallowing tube) that includes the:

  • Nasopharynx: The upper section, which is behind the nose
  • Oropharynx: The middle section, which is behind the mouth
  • Hypopharynx: The bottom section, which is behind the voice box (larynx)

Larynx, also called the voice box, which is the part of the throat containing the vocal cords that help you speak. The larynx has three 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)

Approximately half the cases of throat cancer are found in each of the larynx and pharynx. The number of new cases of smoking-related cancers, such as cancer of the larynx and many cancers of the pharynx, is declining.

The number of new oropharynx cancers is increasing, however, because of a relatively new cause of this disease, human papillomavirus (HPV). Patients with HPV-related oropharynx may have a better outlook than patients with smoking-related oropharynx cancer.

Most throat cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This means they develop in the squamous cells that line the throat.

Risk Factors

Anything that increases your chance of getting throat cancer is a risk factor. People who smoke, especially those who drink alcohol, are at the most at risk for developing throat cancer.

Another risk factor for oropharynx cancer is infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through sexual contact, particularly oral sex.  Unlike smoking-related throat cancer, the number of HPV-related throat cancers is increasing in the United States. 

Most cancers have the same symptoms as other, less serious conditions.  Still, it’s important to know the signs.

Symptoms of throat cancer vary from person to person. They may include:

  • Hoarseness or other change in the voice
  • Difficulty swallowing or the feeling that something is caught in the throat
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Lump in the neck
  • Cough
  • Breathing problems
  • Unexplained weight loss

If you have symptoms that may indicate cancer, your dentist or doctor will examine the inside of your mouth and the lymph nodes in your neck.  If your doctor suspects you may have oral cancer, he or she will recommend a biopsy of the suspicious lesion. 

A biopsy may be done in the office if the suspicious lesion is easily accessible.  If not, your doctor may recommend that the biopsy be done in an operating room under general anesthesia or by using an imaging test (such as CT or MRI) to locate the lesion, then insert a small needle into the area to remove some of the cells.  A pathologist will then examine some of these cells under a microscope to determine if they are cancerous.

Your doctor may also order additional imaging tests (such as CT, MRI, or PET scan) to see if your cancer has spread and determine the stage of your cancer.

Common cancer treatments include chemotherapy, radiation treatment and surgery.  Doctors select a treatment plan based on your diagnosis and disease stage.

Innovative treatments include minimally invasive surgical techniques, new radiation treatment approaches and targeted therapies that help your body fight the cancer.

Radiation Therapy

In cancer of the throat, radiation therapy may be used alone to treat small or early-stage tumors. More often, radiation therapy is used together with chemotherapy or targeted therapy. The method of radiation treatment used depends on the type and stage of cancer.

External-beam radiation therapy is the most frequently used method to deliver radiation therapy to the mouth. Intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) is aimed at treating the tumor while minimizing damage to surrounding normal tissue.

Internal radiation or brachytherapy delivers radiation with tiny seeds, needles or tubes that are implanted into the tumor. It is used sometimes for treating small tumors or with surgery in advanced tumors.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy may be used to shrink the cancer before surgery or radiation, or it may be combined with radiation to increase the effectiveness of both treatments. It also may be used to shrink tumors that cannot be surgically removed.


Surgery

Advanced new technologies in robotics and laser surgery, such as transoral robotic surgery, focuses on removing the cancer but minimizing the long-term effects on your speech and ability to swallow.

Targeted Therapy

Tumor growth factors are hormone-like substances that occur naturally in the body and cause cell growth. Drugs that bind these substances or their partners on the cancer cell surface can inhibit tumor growth.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is a type of medication, usually infused into a vein, which helps your own immune system attack the cancer cells and destroy them.

Our doctors at UofL Brown Cancer Center are proudly part of UofL Physicians and the UofL School of Medicine.

We believe knowledge comes from questioning the status quo, discovering more about disease and using that knowledge to improve the health of our community. Our physicians are the teachers and researchers at the UofL School of Medicine, involved in the research and development of new treatments and cures for cancer. This means you receive the most advanced and appropriate treatment, even for complex or rare conditions.

To learn more about the physicians who make the academic difference in throat cancer treatment, visit the UofL Physicians website here.