If you are a smoker, you need to be cautious about your health as you are at a high risk of suffering from throat cancer. According to Dr Tapaswini P. Sharma, Senior Consultant, Head & Neck Surgical Oncologist, BLK Cancer Centre, BLK Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi, throat cancer is quite common in smokers. It is a type of cancer in which the cancerous cells develop in the pharynx or larynx of the throat. Even poor diet habits and exposure to environmental pollutants can up your risk. Here’s what Dr Tapaswini explains about throat cancer including causes, risk factors, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and prevention.
Although the exact cause of throat cancer is not known, several factors can increase your likelihood of cancer. Here are some of the common risk factors -
Smoking: In general, people who smoke are at an increased likelihood of throat cancer which accounts for around 5 – 25%. But if you smoke more than a pack of a cigarette in a day, the risk increases by 13 times in a year as compared to those who do not smoke. Even, passive smoking can put you at a high likelihood of throat cancer. Also read about 25 things that happen inside your body when you smoke.
Alcohol: Not many people know that alcohol acts as a potent cocarcinogen -- a compound that can cause cancer. It does so through a series of mechanism that an increase the absorption of toxic substances and production of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase thereby imparting the nutrient uptake. Here are few side-effects of alcohol you should know about.
Industrial pollutants: If you are working in industries that produce asbestos, nickel, paint, diesel, leather, coal or tar, you are exposed to various harmful chemicals. These industrial pollutants can take a toll on your health in the long run and also increase your risk of throat cancer.
Nutritional deficiencies: Ever wondered that lack of proper nutrients in your diet can put you at risk of throat cancer? It is estimated that deficiency of beta-carotene, riboflavin, vitamin E and other minerals like iron and selenium can lead to throat cancer. Hence, to lower your risk, load up your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Although there have been reports that certain diseases can put you at risk of throat cancer, the link is not established.
The symptoms of throat cancer are very vague and may vary depending upon the severity of the disease. The early signs include --
Changes in voice: If you feel slight changes in your voice, which fails to show any sign of improvement over a period of four weeks, even with the use of antibiotics, it could indicate vocal cord carcinoma. And to rule out whether it is benign cancer, non-malignant cancer or inflammation, your doctor might recommend an endoscopy.
Choking/sticky feeling: The sticky feeling in the throat or choking in the upper part of the food passage might signify throat cancer. It could also manifest as the presence of a small lump in the throat that worsens with time.
Pain in the throat: If the severity of the throat pain increases rather than decreasing or if it fails to provide any relief with analgesics or antibiotics, it could be a sign of throat cancer.
Difficulty in swallowing: As the cancer progresses, you might experience difficulty in swallowing, which might be a cause for concern. If even gulping down a glass of water turns out to be a tedious task, it's time to consult a doctor without any delay. Here are 11 reasons you have trouble swallowing.
Difficulty in breathing: As the cancerous cells attack the upper throat/voice box, one of the common symptoms that you might experience is the shortness of breath or difficulty in breathing.
Cough with blood stain: Throat cancer can also manifest as a severe cough which worsens with time. In some cases, cough with a slight blood stain is considered to be a tell-a-tale sign of throat cancer. Read more about 11 possible causes of coughing up blood.
Vomiting: Most people tend to feel nauseous and might even suffer from frequent vomiting, which could indicate a high chance of throat cancer. So if this is quite common and you fail to show any improvement with medications, consult a doctor rather than ignoring it as a side-effect of food poisoning or indigestion.
If you experience any of these symptoms, it is a wise idea to go to a qualified medical practitioner than self-medicate or consult a wrong doctor. The right doctor to help you diagnose your condition in case of throat cancer is an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) specialist or ENT surgeon or oncologist.
The diagnosis of throat cancer includes -
Endoscopy: It is done with an endoscope as it helps you to get a closer look at the throat which is not the case in OPD examination. The procedure uses an endoscope (a special instrument with light) that is fitted with a tiny camera at the base of the endoscope, and the images are transmitted to a computer screen. Here is why endoscopy ultrasound is better than conventional endoscopy.
Biopsy: Endoscopy is followed by a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis and stage of the disease. In this, a tissue sample is collected from the affected area and sent for microbiological testing.
Imaging tests: Your doctor might recommend radiology and distant metastatic imaging for final staging of the disease. X-rays, computerised topography (CT scan), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) comprising of radiology and CT–PET (positron emission tomography) of upper abdomen, forms the part of distant metastatic imaging. These tests help in evaluating the entire body and determine the spread of cancer to other regions of the body.
The treatment of throat cancer depends upon the stage of the cancer. Throat cancer is classified into four stages -
Stage I and II: Classified as early stage of throat cancer, the survival chances are high if the person is suffering from stage I or II of the cancer. The common mode of treatment for these phases are single modality treatment which means only a single treatment option is chosen off the various options available. It usually includes surgery or radiation.
Stage III and IV: Known as the late or advanced stage of the cancer, the prognosis is very low in this case. The treatment for people suffering from stage three and four of throat cancer comprises a multi-modality treatment, which uses a combination of treatment options like surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. However, a combination of treatments are also considered depending upon the response of treatment and severity of the cancer like -- surgery and chemotherapy, radiation and surgery and chemotherapy or radiation and chemotherapy and surgery. But ensure that tender love and care also plays a key role in improving the condition and helping the patient cope with the cancer treatment.
According to Dr Tapaswini, 80% of throat cancer is preventable and hence, keeping a tab on the risk factors can help you to prevent it.
Alcohol: As excessive consumption of alcohol can increase your likelihood of throat cancer by 70 - 75%, lower your intake of the same. Read how spirituality helps you stay away from drugs, alcohol.
Diet: A nutrient-rich diet can significantly lower your risk of throat cancer as it provides antioxidants which help you to fight free radicals and lower your risk of cancer. But ensure that you include fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet and not processed or packaged food to reap the benefits.Here are 7 antioxidants your body needs (and how to get them naturally)
Industrial chemicals: If you are working in industries like paint, coal, asbestos or leather, follow preventive measures like covering your mouth with a mask and avoid unwanted exposure to the pollutants as it could further put you at risk of throat cancer.
The content has been verified by Dr Tapaswini P. Sharma, Senior Consultant, Head & Neck Surgical Oncologist, BLK Cancer Centre, BLK Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi.