Throat cancer: Symptoms and causes for concern – explainer

Science and Health

The World Cancer Research Fund recently published a list of causes responsible for hundreds of thousands of cancer cases worldwide each year.

The organization believes that healthy eating, physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and stopping smoking can prevent about 40% of diagnoses, which is quite a number.

The data comes after the publication of a recent study in the journal PLOS which suggested that the death toll of smokers in England had fallen from 27,200 to 16,500. 

Besides lung cancer rates that will decrease as more people stop smoking, smoking puts people at higher risk of many cancers including mouth, throat and bladder. It also leads to narrowed arteries and increases the chance of blood clotting, which means smokers have a significantly higher risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and dementia.

Throat cancer is the most common of head and neck tumors, especially among adults. About 200 people are diagnosed yearly in Israel with throat cancer, 85% men and 15% percent women. This cancer originates from the mucous membranes lining the respiratory and swallowing system which affects the tongue, lips, cheek, throat, vocal cords and pharynx. Early detection and avoidance of risk factors will increase the chances of recovery up to 95% in the early stages.

Cigarette packets highlighting the health risks of smoking shown at a convenience store in Tzfat, northern Israel, December 20, 2019. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

The vast majority of people with throat cancer are smokers. Cigarette smoke contains a high amount of carcinogenic substances that cause a genetic change of a normal cell into a cancerous one, and increases the chance of developing a cancerous tumor by 5 to 15%, compared to a non-smoker. 

This change causes the cell to multiply non-stop and gradually a precancerous lesion may develop into an invasive cancer.

What are the warning signs of throat cancer?

In most patients, the pre-cancerous stage isn’t detected at all, so diagnosis is usually at the stage when the tumor has become cancerous. The first warning signs are a change in vocal tone and hoarseness, sometimes accompanied by difficulty breathing. 

Other signs that can indicate cancerous growth include a sore throat that lasts more than four to six weeks and difficulty swallowing. A sore throat associated with earaches is another symptom that a doctor must check. Any symptoms that last more than three weeks should turn on a red light, especially among smokers.