Miami Cancer Institute’s Head and Neck Cancer specialists combine world-recognized medical expertise, innovation and compassionate care to detect and treat your specific cancer. By creating precise, personalized treatment plans that incorporate groundbreaking discoveries and collaborations with other world-renowned cancer researchers, the Cancer Institute’s experts work together to design the best, most effective treatment plan just for you.

What is throat cancer?

Throat cancer, which is considered a type of Head and Neck Cancer, occurs when malignant (cancerous) cells form in the tissues of the pharynx (the tube connecting the nose to the esophagus), the larynx (where your voice box is located) and/or surrounding tissues and cartilage, including the tonsils and the base of the tongue.

Medical illustration of head and neck cancer regions.

In the beginning stages of the disease, throat cancer cells are typically thin and flat, resembling fish scales. The medical term for this type of cancer cell is squamous cell carcinoma.

What are the types of throat cancer?

Nasopharyngeal Cancer forms in the nasopharynx, which is the upper portion of the pharynx right behind the nose. This type of throat cancer is the only squamous cell head and neck cancer that researchers have not linked to excessive tobacco use or moderate alcohol consumption. It does, however, have its own set of unique risk factors including ethnic background and exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus.

Oropharyngeal Cancer cells grow in the middle portion of the pharynx behind the mouth, but this cancer also impacts the soft palate, sides and back of the throat, and the base of the tongue. Smoking  and exposure to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) put patients at a greater risk for contracting this disease.

Hypopharyngeal cancer cells form in the tissue of the hypopharynx and/or the swallowing passages. Increased risk for hypopharyngeal cancer has been linked to eating a diet without the proper nutrients in it as well as having Plummer-Vinson Syndrome.

As with other cancers, throat cancers (which can often initially go undetected because early signs are difficult to pinpoint) have specific types. Additionally, cancer cells can spread to surrounding tissues, cartilage, bones or other parts of the body.

Prognosis and treatment options vary depending on each person’s own genetic makeup, location of the cancer cells and the stage of the cancer.

What are the risk factors for throat cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease. Having risk factors, however, does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, so it’s important to know your own personal risk factors and discuss any concerns with your doctor.

Although the effects of throat cancer can be significant, the disease is often highly treatable when detected and diagnosed early.

Tobacco and alcohol use are two of the biggest contributing risk factors for throat cancer, but researchers have identified certain other risk factors that may make some people more likely to develop the disease:

  • Being male (Men are up to five times more likely than women to develop throat cancer.)
  • Ethnicity (African-Americans are at a greater risk of developing throat cancer than people of other ethnicities, and those with Chinese or other East Asian ancestry are at greater risk of developing nasopharyngeal cancer specifically)
  • Being over age 65
  • Exposure to asbestos and chemicals such as nickel, sulfuric acid and paint fumes 
  • Exposure to the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus


Preventing throat cancer, or at least reducing your risk, often involves changing lifestyle behaviors and certain environmental exposures.

This includes eliminating tobacco use, drinking alcohol in moderation, avoiding certain environmental and chemical exposures (such as asbestos, nickel, sulfuric acid and paint fumes) and getting vaccinated for HPV.

At the Cancer Institute, our team of throat cancer experts will discuss with you what tests are best for your personal needs as well as any additional steps you can take to lower your risk of developing this disease.

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