Throat cancer

Throat cancer is not a precise medical term so doctors generally don't use it. Within the throat, there are several different parts. These all 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.

Throat cancers could be in one of two main 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 go 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)
Diagram showing the parts of the pharynx

Some people 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 cells are flat, skin like cells that cover the lining of the mouth, nose, larynx, thyroid, and throat.

This type of cancer 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.

Symptoms might include:

  • ear pain

  • a sore throat

  • a lump in the neck

  • difficulty swallowing

  • change in your voice or speech

  • unexplained weight loss

  • a cough

  • shortness of breath

  • a feeling of something stuck in the throat

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. Being well informed about your cancer and its treatment can help. It 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.

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 with rare cancers. It has a forum where you might be able to meet others with the same cancer as you. 

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.

  • Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines

    V Paleri and N Roland

    The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 2016. Volume 130,  Supplement 2

  • Squamous cell carcinoma of the oral cavity, larynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx: EHNS- ESMO-ESTRO Clinical Practice Guidelines for diagnosis, treatment and follow-up

    J.P. Machiels and others

    Annals of Oncology, 2020. Volume 31, Issue 11, Pages 1462-1475

  • Head and neck cancer

    M D Mody and others

    The Lancet, 2021

  • Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma

    D. E. Johnson and others

    Nature Reviews Disease Primers, 2020. Volume 6, Issue 1

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

Last reviewed: 
25 Jan 2022
Next review due: 
25 Jan 2025

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