Health A-Z

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The type of treatment you'll receive depends largely on the cancer's stage (how far it has spread). The preferred treatments for the early stages of throat cancer are radiation therapy and surgery. In more advanced cases, chemotherapy may be given in combination with surgery and/or radiation. When throat cancer already has spread widely throughout the body, chemotherapy may be given alone. Under these circumstances, surgery or radiation is unlikely to help, and it's unlikely the cancer can be cured.

Here's what doctor's often recommend, based on cancer stage:

  • Stage 0 throat cancers have not become invasive. They usually can be treated by removing the affected tissue.

  • Stage I or II throat cancers require surgery, radiation therapy or both. Radiation therapy can be highly successful with these cancers, but throat cancers rarely are found this early.

  • Stage III or IV throat cancers likely will require a combination of surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Most cancers at later stages require the removal of part or all of the larynx or pharynx. Surgical removal of part or all of the larynx is called laryngectomy. Surgical removal of part or all of the pharynx is called pharyngectomy.

One of the most exciting new developments in the treatment of pharyngeal cancer is the use of robotic surgery. Complex operations that took hours and were quite debilitating can now be performed with greater efficiency using robotic assisted techniques.

A laryngectomy is the most common surgery for throat cancer. Even if only part of the larynx is removed, the patient will lose some of his or her ability to speak. He or she will need to learn special techniques or have reconstructive procedures to regain the use of his or her voice.

If cancer cells have spread beyond the larynx or pharynx and into the lymph nodes, a surgery called neck dissection is required. In this surgery, lymph nodes thought to contain cancer cells are removed. This can help contain the cancer before it spreads throughout the body. After surgery, radiation therapy may be done to destroy remaining cancer cells.

After treatment for throat cancer, some people will learn new ways to speak with voice aids, breathing techniques, and surgical restructuring. Because the pharynx is a passage to the digestive tract, patients undergoing pharyngectomy might need surgery to reconstruct the pharynx to allow food to pass through.

Seek advice and treatment from experts who treat throat cancer regularly. Experience counts.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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