Types of Throat Cancer

The type of throat cancer you have depends on the type of cell in which the cancer began. Pathologists are able to diagnose which type of cancer you have by looking at tumor cells under a microscope.

Most throat cancers are squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells that line the throat. Carcinoma means cancer.

Lymphoma and cancer of the minor salivary glands can also develop in the throat. These are much more rare.

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Where Throat Cancer Begins

Doctors also refer to the cancer by its precise location in the throat.

The throat has two primary parts: the pharynx and the larynx.Throat cancer can begin in either place.

Knowing a little bit about the anatomy of the throat will help you talk to your doctor about your treatment options for throat cancer, which may include surgery or radiation, as well as other aspects of your care.

The Pharynx

The pharynx is a thin muscular tube that’s approximately five inches long. It extends from the back of the nose and mouth to the trachea (windpipe). Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or esophagus.

The pharynx has three main sections:

  • The nasopharynx is the upper part of the pharynx, where the throat connects the mouth and nose.
  • The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx, including the tonsils, where the throat meets the oral cavity.
  • The hypopharynx is the bottom part of the pharynx, where the throat meets the windpipe.

Cancer can begin in any of these sections, but the most common location is the oropharynx. Hypopharyngeal cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer are rare.

The treatment recommendations for pharyngeal cancer vary according to the exact size and location of the tumor, among other factors. If you’ve been told you have throat cancer, you’ll want to find out the exact location of the tumor so you can better understand your options for care.

The information in this guide is focused on cancers of the oropharynx and the hypopharynx.

The Larynx (Voice Box)

The larynx is the part of the throat between the base of the tongue and the windpipe. It is often referred to as the voice box because it contains the vocal cords, which help create a person’s voice.

The larynx has three main parts:

  • The supraglottis is the upper part of the larynx above the vocal cords, including the epiglottis.
  • The glottis is the middle part of the larynx, where the vocal cords are located.
  • The subglottis is the lower part of the larynx between the vocal cords and the windpipe (trachea).

Cancer can begin in any of these sections, as well as in the vocal cords.

Learn more about laryngeal cancer.