Pharyngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that forms in the pharynx, the hollow tube that runs from the back of the nose to the top of the esophagus. The pharynx has three distinct parts: the nasopharynx (upper part), the oropharynx (middle part, including the back of the mouth, base of the tongue, and tonsils), and the hypopharynx (lower part). Cancer can form in the cells of all three areas and has different characteristics depending on its location.
Some factors that increase risk for pharyngeal cancer also increase risk for other head and neck cancers. They include aging, smoking or chewing tobacco, abusing alcohol, and being exposed to high doses of radiation, asbestos or certain industrial chemicals. The use of alcohol and tobacco together heightens the risk.
People who are of Chinese or Asian descent and people who have suffered from the Epstein-Barr virus are at increased risk for nasophyaryngeal cancer. Risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include being infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV) and drinking maté (a South American herbal tea drink) or chewing betel quid. Increased risk of hypopharyngeal cancer is associated with nutritional deficiencies (specifically of vitamins A and B, and iron deficiency that leads to Plummer-Vinson syndrome), and possibly, gastroesophageal reflux disease.
In the United States, oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection are on the rise but those caused by other factors are decreasing.
General symptoms include an unabated sore throat, a lump in the back of the throat, pain in the ears, voice changes, a stuffy feeling, headache, coughing, difficulty swallowing or unexplained weight loss.
Nosebleeds or ringing in the ears are associated with tumors in the nasopharynx, while a tumor in the hypopharynx may lead to difficulty swallowing. Those conditions can also be signs of benign ailments but lingering problems should be evaluated by a physician.
Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, or some combination of the three are standard treatments for pharyngeal cancer.