What are the different types of throat cancer?

Throat cancer collectively refers to a collection of diseases that can affect organs close to the throat, neck, voice box, vocal chords, pyriform sinuses, the base of the tongue, the soft palate, the tonsils, etc. They are also sometimes broadly grouped under the larger umbrella of ‘head & neck cancers’. For the purpose of easy classification, we have listed symptoms, risk factors, diagnosis and treatment options for the most common types of throat cancer in this segment, i.e. postcricoid cancer, cancers of the tonsils, soft palate, the base of the tongue and the pyriform sinuses.

Cellular level classification of throat cancer

In terms of the types of cells that start growing abnormally (resulting in malignancy), throat cancers can be categorized as squamous cell carcinomas, adenocarcinomas or sarcomas.

3D representation of throat anatomy, throat cancer types

  • Squamous cell carcinomas develop in the thin and flat cells that form a majority of the throat’s cellular lining. These cells resemble fish scales when observed under a microscope. Squamous cell carcinomas are the most common type of throat cancer.
  • Adenocarcinoma originates in the glandular cells lining the throat and nearby areas.
  • Sarcomas are a very rare form of throat cancer. They mostly develop within connecting tissue elements, e.g. in the muscle fibers of the neck.

Oropharyngeal cancer

Cancers that originate in the tonsils, the base of the tongue, the soft palate (the roof of the mouth) and the pharynx (the top of the throat) are grouped together as oropharyngeal cancers.

The most common form of oropharyngeal cancer is called oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma, or OSCC. In such cancers, the malignant cells start forming inside the soft skin that coats the oropharynx region (Skin does not just cover your external body parts, but internal organs such as the throat too!). Oropharyngeal squamous cell carcinoma is an indication that the soft skin lining of the throat has developed a cancerous growth. OSCC accounts for nearly 90% of all cases of oropharyngeal cancer in the USA.

Hypopharyngeal cancer

The part of the throat where the larynx (throat) and the oesophagus (food pipe) meet, is called the hypopharynx. Cancers that originate in this region are called hypopharyngeal cancers. This is a rarer form of throat cancer, and is extremely difficult to detect early or diagnose. The risk for developing hypopharyngeal cancer is higher in people who smoke or consume alcohol on a regular basis.

Other types of the throat (and head & neck) cancers

Aside from oropharyngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer, throat cancer may also sometimes be used to refer to cancers of the voice box (laryngeal cancer), cancer of the vocal cords, cancer of the nasopharynx or paranasal cancer.

[Read our complete article on other types of throat cancers here]


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