Pharyngeal Cancer: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment


Pharyngeal cancer is a disease where the malignant cells develop on the pharynx, which is located behind the oral cavity, between the nasal cavity and larynx. The pharynx is a hollow tube in the neck and throat. It can be divided into three sections: nasopharynx, which is the top section, oropharynx, which is the middle section, and hypopharynx, which is the lowest section.

Pharyngeal cancer is less common than other head and neck cancers. It is often called throat cancer and occurs more commonly in men.

It is estimated that more than 13,000 cases of pharyngeal cancer are diagnosed in the United States every year, affecting about 3 in every 100,000 Americans.


The exact cause of pharyngeal cancer is not yet known. It is believed that pharyngeal cancer occurs more often in ages 50 to 60 but can occur at any age. It affects more men than women. There are many other risk factors that may lead to pharyngeal cancer, including:

  • Heavy drinking
  • Tobacco use
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Human papillomavirus
  • Asbestos exposure
  • Formaldehyde exposure
  • Cooking salt-cured fish and meat (which releases a chemical called nitrosamine)


The first symptom of pharyngeal cancer is a painless lump in the upper neck. Other possible symptoms include:

  • A lump in the neck
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Nosebleed
  • Nasal congestion
  • Sore throat
  • Ear pain
  • Facial pain
  • Persistent headaches
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Bad breath
  • Blood-tinged saliva
  • Double vision
  • Hearing loss


To diagnose pharyngeal cancer, the doctor will examine your mouth, throat, ears and use a small lighted mirror to examine your pharynx. The doctor will pass a thin flexible tube with a light at the end, which is called endoscope, into the nostril to look at the back of the nose. If a tumor is suspected, the doctor will order the following tests:

  • Biopsy
  • Fine-needle aspiration (FNA)
  • Blood tests
  • CT scan
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • PET scan. In this test, a small amount of radioactive glucose is injected into a vein. The scanner makes computerized pictures of the areas inside the body. The tumor will be highlighted on the pictures, because cancer cells absorb more radioactive glucose than normal cells.
  • Orthopantomography. It uses a panoramic X-ray to check the upper and lower jaw. It shows a view from ear to ear and helps determine if a tumor has grown into the jawbone.


Treatment for pharyngeal cancer depends on the location in the pharynx, the size and extent of the tumor. The following is a brief overview of the treatment options:

  • Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses waves of high-energy rays produced by a machine to shrink or destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy is often the primary treatment for early-stage oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal tumors. It commonly involves 5-6 weeks of daily treatments.

  • Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to target rapidly growing cells to destroy cancer cells. It is often combined with radiation therapy to treat locally advanced tumors in the pharynx. Chemotherapy can be given before or after surgery or radiation therapy, in order to shrink the tumor or kill remaining cancer cells.

  • Surgery

Surgery is a common treatment for pharyngeal cancer. The doctor will remove the tumor and surrounding tissue using only a thin flexible tool passed into the throat. However, other cases may require a surgical incision in the neck, jawbone, or facial bones. In more serious cases, the doctor may need to surgically remove nearby affected structures, including the tongue, jawbone, roof of mouth, and larynx. Moreover, the doctor may perform a neck dissection and remove the lymph nodes and tissue in the neck. After these surgeries, patients may need a tracheostomy or gastronomy tube to help them breathe and eat.

Before taking any treatment options, it is advisable to consult with your doctor for better advice.

Keywords: Pharyngeal cancer

* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.