Decorative image

Throat cancer

Throat cancer can mean cancer that starts in any of the different structures and areas within the throat. Find out about the different types of throat cancer.

Throat cancer is not a precise medical term so doctors generally don't use it. There are different structures and areas within the throat and they have different names.

Cancers are treated according to where they started and the type of cell they started from. You can ask your doctor or nurse to write the exact name of your cancer down for you, if you are unsure.

Throat cancers could be in one of two areas that doctors call the:

  • pharynx
  • head and neck

The pharynx

The medical name for the throat is the pharynx. The easiest way to think of this is as a passage, that makes sure food and drink goes in one direction (down the food pipe) and air goes in the other (up and down the windpipe). There are 3 main parts to the pharynx.

They are the:

  • nasopharynx, which connects the back of the nose to the back of the mouth
  • oropharynx, which is at the back of the mouth and contains the soft palate, base of the tongue and back wall of the throat (posterior pharyngeal wall)
  • hypopharynx which connects the oropharynx and nasopharynx to the start of the food pipe (oesophagus) and the windpipe (trachea) via the voice box (larynx)

Some patients and relatives may also use throat cancer to mean cancer of the:

  • thyroid gland, which is at the front of the base of the neck
  • voice box (larynx)
  • food pipe (oesophagus)
  • windpipe (trachea)

Head and neck cancers

Cancers that start in the head and neck area (for example, the tongue, the nose or the ear) are often grouped together under a general heading of head and neck cancer.

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell cancers. Squamous cell head and neck cancers don't usually spread to other body organs. But they can spread to lymph nodes (also called lymph glands) in the neck.

Sometimes, the first sign of cancer that a person notices is a swollen (enlarged) lymph node in the neck.

Some of the most common head and neck cancers include: 

  • mouth and oropharynx
  • voice box (larynx)
  • food pipe (oesophagus or gullet)
  • thyroid gland

Cancer of the windpipe (trachea) really comes under lung cancer.

The trachea branches into 2 smaller tubes called the main bronchi. It is more usual for lung cancer to start here, so it is sometimes called cancer of the bronchus or bronchial cancer.

More information

We have more information on tests, treatment and support if you have been diagnosed with cancer.

Coping and support

Coping with a diagnosis of a rare cancer can be especially difficult, both practically and emotionally. Being well informed about your cancer and its treatment can make it easier to make decisions and cope with what happens.

Talking to other people

Talking to other people who have the same thing can also help.

Our discussion forum Cancer Chat is a place for anyone affected by cancer. You can share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.

The Rare Cancer Alliance offer support and information to people affected by rare cancers.

The Mouth Cancer Foundation

The Mouth Cancer Foundation website also has an online support group that offers practical advice and support for people affected by cancers of the head and neck.

Last reviewed: 
23 Oct 2014
  • Cancer: Principles and practice of oncology (9th edition)
    VT De Vita, S Hellman and SA Rosenberg
    Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 2011

  • Head and Neck Cancer: Multidisciplinary Management Guidelines (4th edition)
    British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists, 2011

  • Improving outcomes in head and neck cancers
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2004

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.