Throat cancer - symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment explained
How to Treat Throat Cancer
Throat cancer occurs when cells in your throat develop mutations and grow to form tumors. Though it is not clear what causes throat cancer, you can be at risk if you use tobacco, consume alcohol in excess, drink really hot beverages, have the human papillomavirus (HPV), or if you have unmanaged GERD.Your doctor may suggest having surgery on your throat to try to remove the cancerous cells and prevent the spread of the disease to other parts of your body. You can also treat throat cancer by using radiation therapy and chemotherapy to kill off the cancerous cells in your throat.
Undergo tests to determine what stage your cancer is at.Figuring out how far along your cancer is and how much it has spread will help your doctor determine which treatment is best for you. To conduct these tests, your doctor may perform an endoscopy or radiologic imaging tests like a CAT scan, an MRI, X-rays, and PET scans.
Opt for surgery for early-stage throat cancer.If your doctor catches your throat cancer in its early stages, it may be possible to remove the cancerous cells with surgery. About 80% of patients recover from throat cancer if the surgery is a success in the early stages of the disease.
- Surgery using endoscopy, where tumors on the surface of your throat or your vocal cords are removed through your mouth no incisions, may be used. Your doctor may be able to scrape off or cut out the tumors depending on their size and location.
- Your doctor may also use laser surgery to remove smaller tumors in your throat. The laser will be inserted into your throat to vaporize tumors in your throat.
Get surgery to remove all or part of your voice box.For advanced-stage cancer, your doctor may remove all or part of your voice box to get rid of tumors on your voice box. Your doctor will do their best to preserve your ability to speak and breathe normally using your mouth and throat.
- If there are larger tumors on your voice box, your doctor may need to remove your entire voice box. During surgery, the doctor may attach your windpipe to a hole in your throat to allow you to breathe. If your entire larynx must be removed, you will likely work with a speech pathologist to help you learn how to speak without your voice box.
Talk to your doctor about surgery on your lymph nodes.For advanced-stage cancer, surgery on your lymph nodes will most likely need to be performed if the cancer has spread deep within your neck. Your doctor may recommend removing some or all of your lymph nodes to ensure the cancer does not spread.
- Surgically removing the lymph nodes is controversial, but it may be necessary, as throat cancer can recur or spread through your lymph system. Your doctor may recommend removing your lymph nodes to check if cancer is present and to lower the risk of the cancer coming back.
Be aware of the risks and complications of throat surgery.Though surgery can successfully remove the cancerous cells from your throat, especially if it is in the early stages of the disease, there are still risks and side effects associated with this option. Your doctor should outline all the risks of the surgery before you undergo the procedure.
- You are at risk of bleeding and developing an infection during surgery.
- You may also experience complications after the surgery, such as difficulty swallowing or speaking. Your doctor should prepare you for these complications and you should seek support after surgery to ensure you can still maintain a positive quality of life.
- There's also a risk of losing your voice because of surgery.
Using Radiation Therapy
Speak to your doctor about radiation therapy.Radiation therapy may be a good option if your cancer is caught early, such as Stage I or Stage II cancer. Many patients have a high survival rate after the use of radiation therapy to remove cancerous cells in their body, especially if the cancer is detected early. Radiation therapy uses high-energy beams from X-rays and protons to kill cancerous cells in your throat.
- Your doctor may use a large machine outside your body, known as external beam radiation. You can also receive radiation through small radioactive seeds and wires placed inside your body, near your cancer, known as brachytherapy.
- Your doctor may suggest 3-D conformal radiation therapy, where several radiation beams are doled out in the exact shape of your tumor or tumors. You may also get radiation in the form of intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT), where the treatment is customized to the specific shape of your tumor. This allows the radiation to be more precise.
Combine radiation with other treatments for more advanced cancer.If you have a more advanced stage of throat cancer, your doctor may recommend doing radiation therapy in tandem with other treatments, such as surgery or chemotherapy. You may also combine radiation with other treatments if you have very large tumors on your throat.
- If you have very advanced throat cancer, your doctor may suggest radiation therapy to reduce your symptoms and make you more comfortable as your body experiences the cancer.
Learn the symptoms of radiation therapy.Your doctor should outline the symptoms of radiation therapy before you undergo treatment so you know what to expect. Many patients develop sores in their mouth and throat, which can make eating and drinking difficult. They may then experience weight loss and malnutrition because they cannot eat or drink.
- You may also experience skin issues, such as blistering or peeling, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, a loss of taste, hoarseness, or difficulty breathing.
- Keep in mind many of these side effects will go away after you stop radiation therapy.
- Radiation therapy can also damage your salivary glands, causing your mouth to be permanently dry.
- Radiation therapy can damage your thyroid gland, so your doctor will run blood tests to make sure your thyroid is in good condition.
Talk to your doctor about chemotherapy drugs.Chemotherapy is used to try to kill off cancer cells by administering certain drugs. Your doctor may suggest the use of chemotherapy if your cancer is in the early to middle stages to try to promptly attack and kill the cancerous cells in your throat.
- Your doctor may suggest several chemotherapy drugs for throat cancer, including Cisplatin, Carboplatin, 5-fluorouracil (5-FU), Docetaxel, Paclitaxel, Bleomycin, Methotrexate, and Ifosfamide.
- Your doctor may suggest the use of one drug or two or more drugs together. You will likely be prescribed chemotherapy in cycles of a few weeks at a time, with a rest period between each cycle of treatment so your body can recover.
Note the side effects of chemotherapy.Chemotherapy can be effective at attacking your cancer cells. But it can also attack other cells in your body, such as cells in your bone marrow, your mouth, and your intestines. You may also experience common side effects while on chemo, such as nausea, vomiting, a loss of appetite, mouth sores, diarrhea, hair loss, fatigue, and a higher risk of infection and bleeding.
- Keep in mind some chemotherapy drugs can also cause other side effects like nerve damage, numbness, tingling, and pain in your hands and feet.
- Most of the side effects of chemotherapy will go away after the treatment is done, but some can last for a long period of time or be permanent. You should let your doctor know when you experience certain side effects while on chemotherapy, as there are ways to treat or prevent some of these side effects.
Consider combining chemotherapy with radiation therapy.This form of chemo is called chemoradiation, where chemotherapy is given at the same time as radiation treatment. Your doctor may suggest this course of treatment instead of surgery or after you have throat surgery to ensure the cancer does not return.
- Your doctor may suggest a dose of chemotherapy every three weeks during radiation therapy. The exact dosage will depend on the stage of your throat cancer.
- Some chemotherapy drugs can make the cancer cells in your throat more responsive to radiation therapy, which can then help to kill off the cancer cells more effectively. However, combining radiation and chemotherapy can increase the side effects you experience on both treatments.
- Your cancer may be considered Stage I if the tumors in your throat area are no bigger than 1 inch (2 cm) in size and have not spread to your lymph nodes. Your cancer may be considered Stage II if the tumors are bigger than 1 inch (2 cm) but less than 2 inches (4 cm) and have not reached your lymph nodes. Stage III cancer is classified as "early" if the tumor(s) are small and are only on one lymph node. Stage IV cancer is when the tumors are very large and have affected both lymph nodes.
- Talk to your doctor about all your options before you pursue a course of treatment for your throat cancer. Your doctor can help you review your options and choose the best one for you, given the stage of your cancer and your medical history.
- Try complementary therapies to help you get through your throat cancer treatment, like art and music therapy.
- You can also try things like acupuncture, massage, and yoga to help you through your course of treatment.
Video: Throat Cancer: Who, Why and What Now? #UCLAMDChat - Abie Mendelsohn, MD | UCLA Health
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