throat cancer | City of Hope

Throat pain: When is it something more serious?


Robert Kang

Robert Kang, M.D., M.P.H.

Few cancers are as frightening as tumors of the head and neck. The possibilities of loss of function, as well as disfigurement, make these cancers particularly scary. April is Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month, a good time to remember to be aware of symptoms in this area, and that early diagnosis is the key to minimizing treatment side effects.

Surgical expert Robert Kang, M.D., M.P.H, an assistant clinical professor in City of Hope’s Division of Head and Neck Surgery, specializes in advanced facial reconstructive and microvascular procedures for patients with complex and challenging head and neck cancers. We asked him about possible symptoms of throat cancer — and why it's important to see your doctor early.

Pain or hoarseness in the throat that gets worse, not better, and difficulty swallowing are some warning signs, as are ulcers or sores that don’t go away, said Kang, who is seeing a rise in cancers of the oropharynx, which is the part of the throat that includes the base of the tongue and the tonsils — an area that can be difficult to treat.

Kang said that the key to avoiding treatments that compromise speaking or eating is getting in to have your doctor take a look and possibly a biopsy when symptoms occur — not waiting for them to grow worse. These cancers are usually diagnosed through an endoscope, a simple in-office procedure that gives the physician a bird’s eye view of the entire throat.

The main treatments for head and neck cancer are surgery and radiation, according to Kang. If the tumor is small and no lymph nodes are involved, surgery is usually sufficient. If the cancer is more advanced, chemotherapy may be added to surgery and radiation.

Depending upon the stage and location of the cancer, complex procedures are sometimes necessary to eradicate these tumors while preserving vital structures and function.

There is some good news, Kang shared: As we have fewer smokers, the traditional head and neck cancers linked to smoking are decreasing. And preventing head and neck cancers, he said, is the best possible outcome.