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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. It is important to know the exact name of the cancer to find the right information. Cancers are treated according to where they started and the type of cell they started from. If you are not sure of the name of your cancer, you can ask your doctor or nurse to write it down for you.

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

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.

We have information about cancers of the

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.

Lots of people say it helps to talk to other people who know what they are going through. If you are seeing a specialist in head and neck cancer, ask them if they can put you in touch with any other patients. That way, they may live nearby. But with rare cancers, it is hard to find people with the same condition. You can try Cancer Chat – our online forum. It is a place for anyone affected by cancer to share experiences, stories and information with other people who know what you are going through.

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. Their website also provides information about throat cancers.

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Updated: 23 October 2014