Cancer of the throat

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Throat cancer refers to malignant tumours that develop in the throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), or tonsils. It’s a type of head and neck cancer that can affect speech, swallowing, and breathing. Understanding the types, causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of throat cancer is essential for early detection and effective management.

 

Types of Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is categorised based on the location and type of cells where the cancer begins:

 

  • Pharyngeal Cancer: Affects the pharynx, divided into nasopharynx (upper part), oropharynx (middle part, including tonsils), and hypopharynx (lower part).
  • Laryngeal Cancer: Originates in the larynx, which houses the vocal cords.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma: The most common type, arising from the flat cells lining the throat.
  • Adenocarcinoma: Less common, begins in the glandular cells.

 

Causes and Risk Factors

While the exact cause of throat cancer is not fully understood, some risk factors have been identified:

 

  • Tobacco Use: Smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, or using chewing tobacco significantly increases the risk.
  • Alcohol Consumption: Heavy alcohol use is another major risk factor, especially when combined with tobacco.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV): Infections with certain types of HPV are linked to oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Poor Nutrition: A diet with insufficient fruits and vegetables may increase the risk.
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): Frequent acid reflux can cause irritation and changes in the throat lining.
  • Exposure to Asbestos or Other Chemicals: Certain occupations that involve inhaling hazardous substances can increase the risk.

 

Symptoms

Throat cancer symptoms can differ depending on the cancer’s location but may include:

 

  • A persistent sore throat
  • Difficulty swallowing (dysphagia)
  • Hoarseness or changes in voice
  • A lump or mass in the neck
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Ear pain
  • Coughing, sometimes with blood
  • Breathing difficulties

 

Diagnosis

Diagnosing throat cancer involves a thorough clinical evaluation and a series of tests:

 

  • Physical Examination: Includes checking the throat and neck for abnormalities.
  • Laryngoscopy/Endoscopy: A scope is used to get a closer look at the throat, larynx, and surrounding areas.
  • Biopsy: Removing a tissue sample for microscopic examination to confirm cancer.
  • Imaging Tests: CT scans, MRIs, PET scans, and X-rays help determine the cancer’s extent and whether it has spread.

 

Treatment

Throat cancer treatment depends on the cancer’s stage, location, and overall health of the patient, and may include:

 

  • Surgery: To remove the tumour and some surrounding healthy tissue. Advanced cases may require more extensive surgery, including partial or total removal of the larynx (laryngectomy) or pharynx (pharyngectomy).
  • Radiation Therapy: Utilises high-energy beams to target and kill cancer cells. It can be used alone for early-stage cancers or paired with chemotherapy for more advanced cases.
  • Chemotherapy: Involves drugs to kill cancer cells, often used alongside radiation therapy.
  • Targeted Therapy: Drugs that specifically target cancer cell abnormalities. For some throat cancers, especially those linked to HPV, targeted therapies can be effective.
  • Immunotherapy: Uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer, an option for some advanced or recurrent throat cancers.

 

Prevention and Management

While not all cases of throat cancer can be prevented, certain lifestyle choices can significantly lower the risk:

 

  • Avoid Tobacco and Limit Alcohol: These are the most significant modifiable risk factors for throat cancer.
  • HPV Vaccination: Recommended for children and young adults to prevent
  • HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Well-balanced Diet: Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables may help lower the risk.
  • Regular Dental Check-ups: Oral health can impact overall health, including the risk of throat cancer.

 

Conclusion

Throat cancer poses serious health challenges but can often be treated successfully, especially if diagnosed early. Awareness of the risk factors, symptoms, and the importance of early detection is key to improving outcomes. Advances in treatment, including minimally invasive surgical techniques, targeted therapies, and immunotherapy, continue to improve survival rates and quality of life for those affected. If you experience persistent throat symptoms, particularly if you have risk factors for throat cancer, it’s crucial to seek medical evaluation from an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist in Singapore promptly.

When should you see an ENT specialist in Singapore?

Please consult an ENT specialist if you are suffering from any ear, nose, or throat symptoms. It is also advisable to visit an ENT doctor if you experience persistent mouth breathing due to a chronic blocked nose or encounter snoring issues.

Dr Ker Liang sees adults and children for general ENT conditions and provides comprehensive management in a broad range of Ear, Nose, and Throat, as well as Head and Neck conditions. In particular, she has a special interest in treating throat and voice conditions, including persistent sore throat, voice issues, snoring, and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA).

Medical Teaching

Assistant Professor Ker Liang has a passion for teaching and is an Assistant Professor with NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (YLLSOM). As the NUS-NUH Otolaryngology Department Undergraduate Medical Director, Dr Ker Liang supervises the training of medical students from YLLSOM, NUS. She is actively involved
in the training of postgraduate junior doctors and residents in the Head and Neck Surgery department. She was conferred with an Undergraduate Teaching Award by the National University Health System in 2016 for her outstanding efforts as an Otolaryngology educator.

Medical Teaching

Assistant Professor Ker Liang has a passion for teaching and is an Assistant Professor with NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (YLLSOM). As the NUS-NUH Otolaryngology Department Undergraduate Medical Director, Dr Ker Liang supervises the training of medical students from YLLSOM, NUS. She is actively involved
in the training of postgraduate junior doctors and residents in the Head and Neck Surgery department. She was conferred with an Undergraduate Teaching Award by the National University Health System in 2016 for her outstanding efforts as an Otolaryngology educator.

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Dr Ker Liang
ENT Surgeon

MBBS (S’pore), MRCS (Edin),
MMed (ORL), ACGME-I (ORL)

Specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of conditions affecting the

ENT system, our doctor brings expertise, compassion, and a personalised approach to

every patient interaction. From common concerns such as allergies and sinus issues to

more complex conditions like hearing loss and throat disorders, our ENT specialist is

equipped to address your unique health needs with skill. 

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