Part of the immune system, the tonsils act as a filter when air is taken in and food is ingested, and provide protection from infection. If tonsils become irritated, it’s usually a minor inconvenience that will go away with home remedies or antibiotics. In some cases, symptoms that include difficulty swallowing and persistent sore throats are caused by tonsil cancer, a treatable condition that often affects the palatine tonsils in the back of the throat.
Tonsil Cancer Risk Factors
A form of oropharyngeal cancer, tonsil cancer may be related to the HPV (human papillomavirus), according to recent research. HPV is also a contributing factor in various forms of oral cancer and may be responsible for more than half of all occurrences of tonsil cancer. Excessive use of alcohol and tobacco products are the most common risk factors associated with tonsil cancer, which affects men more than women.
Possible Signs and Symptoms
Tonsil cancer is often mistaken for tonsillitis or other common throat irritations and infections since symptoms can be very similar. The first possible sign that throat pain may be tonsil cancer is a sore throat that lasts for more than a few weeks. There is sometimes a feeling of having a lump in the throat that becomes more noticeable when swallowing. Additional symptoms may include:
- Sores in the mouth or throat without any other possible cause
- Chronic month pain and difficulty swallowing
- Ear and/or neck pain
- Swollen or inflamed tonsils
- Blood appearing in saliva
Diagnosing Tonsil Cancer
CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans are among the diagnostic tests that may be done to rule out other possible sources of throat pain. An examination of the throat may be done with a special camera and tube (endoscopy) to view the affected part of the throat in real-time. If an unusual growth is found, a biopsy is typically done to determine if it’s cancerous. Patient history and presented symptoms are also taken into consideration when making a diagnosis or determining what types of tests to perform.
Tonsil Cancer Treatments
Treatment is based on the size and location of the growth. Radiation therapy may be recommended before surgery and considered in an attempt to destroy the cancer cells. If it’s not advisable to perform surgery, oral or intravenous medications (chemotherapy) may be recommended to ease symptoms. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are often used in combination to minimize discomfort and destroy abnormal tissues.
Surgery for Tonsil Cancer
If radiation therapy and chemotherapy aren’t effectively treating tonsil cancer, surgery may be recommended to remove the affected tissues or the tonsils. Surgery may also be suggested if the growth is causing significant issues with swallowing or contributing to other problematic symptoms.
Recovery from tonsil cancer will depend on several factors, including when it was detected and whether or not other parts of the throat are affected. Smaller tumors often respond well to radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery alone while larger tumors may require a combination of all three treatments. Patients are periodically monitored after treatment.