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.
Watch our 2 minute video to find out more about the different parts of the throat.
We call this area the throat but in fact it includes a number of different parts. The thyroid gland, trachea, nasopharynx, oropharynx, larynx and the oesophagus.
At the top of the throat is the nasopharynx or the back of the nose. When we breathe in air passes through the nasopharynx into the lungs.
The next part of the throat is the oropharynx or the back of the mouth. It includes the soft palate, the back wall of the throat, the tonsils and the back part of the tongue.
The larynx, or the voice box, is the part of the throat that contains the epiglottis and the vocal cords. As we breathe in air passes through the vocal cords to make sound. When we swallow the epiglottis closes to prevent food and liquid entering the airway, allowing the food to pass into the oesophagus or foodpipe.
Surrounding the larynx is the hypopharynx and on either side of the larynx are the piriform sinuses. They help to channel food into the oesophagus.
The trachea or windpipe starts in the throat area. It is the tube that air moves through as air passes in and out of the lungs.
The thyroid gland sits just below the larynx in front of the trachea. It makes hormones that help the body to work normally.
The parathyroid glands are just behind the thyroid gland. They help control the amount of calcium in the body.
And finally, there are lymph glands throughout this part of the body. Our lymph glands are part of our immune system and help us to fight infections.
For more information about cancers that start in the throat and symptoms of throat cancer go to cruk.org/throat
Throat cancers could be in one of two main areas that doctors call the:
- head and neck
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.
Symptoms of throat cancer
The symptoms of throat cancer are often similar to symptoms of other much less serious conditions. You can find information about possible symptoms in each of the cancer type sections for this part of the body. You can also watch our 1 minute video explaining some of the possible symptoms. You should see your doctor if you have any symptoms.
Throat cancer and symptoms to look out for.
Throat cancer is a general term that describes several different types of cancer. Symptoms include ear pain or a sore throat, a lump in the neck, difficulty swallowing, change in your voice or speech, unexplained weight loss, a cough, shortness of breath and a feeling of something stuck in the throat.
If you have any of these symptoms or anything else that is not normal for you go to see your doctor. And remember there are other conditions much less serious than cancer that can cause these symptoms.
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. 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 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.
You can call our nurse freephone helpline on 0808 800 4040. They are available from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Or you can send them a question online.
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.
This page is due for review. We will update this as soon as possible.