Hypopharyngeal Cancer

The hypopharynx is the lowest portion of the throat, where the throat meets the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus. Cancer begins there when cells grow out of control and form tumors or lesions.

As with many other forms of head and neck cancer, hypopharyngeal cancer is closely associated with tobacco and alcohol use.

Other risk factors may include:

  • a diet low in vitamins A and E
  • workplace exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and other inhalants
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome, a rare condition that causes difficulty swallowing

Hypopharyngeal Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of hypopharyngeal cancer may include:

  • a lump in the neck
  • hoarseness
  • difficulty swallowing
  • ear pain

Hypopharyngeal Cancer Treatment

The goals of the treatment of hypopharyngeal cancer are to:

  • cure the cancer
  • preserve your appearance and the functions of your throat
  • prevent the cancer from coming back

The extent and depth of the cancer guides your plan of care. Radiation is the most common treatment for cancer of the hypopharynx. Your doctor may also recommend chemotherapy or surgery. Surgery is more commonly recommended for people whose disease has come back after initial treatment.

Radiation Therapy for Hypopharyngeal Cancer

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Radiation therapy is usually the primary treatment for people with hypopharyngeal cancer. An approach called intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) has proven particularly effective against the disease. IMRT allows for the delivery of more-precise doses of radiation to the tumor. At the same time, it reduces the risk that healthy tissue is exposed. This approach was developed by researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering and is now used around the world for a variety of cancers.

Proton therapy is another form of radiation therapy that can be extremely helpful . Memorial Sloan Kettering is one of a limited number of centers nationwide that offer proton therapy.

Chemotherapy can help increase the sensitivity of the tumor to radiation treatment. That’s why doctors usually recommend the chemotherapy drug cisplatin (Platinol®). Taking the drug before and after radiation treatments reduces the chances that the tumor will come back. This combination of radiation plus chemotherapy is called chemoradiation.

Drug Therapies for Advanced Hypopharyngeal Cancer

People with advanced disease may receive drug therapies such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or immunotherapy.

At MSK, our medical oncologists (the doctors who treat cancer using drug therapies) work with you to create a customized treatment plan that fits your needs and leads to the best possible outcome for you.

Our medical oncologists bring extraordinary skill to caring for people with advanced hypopharyngeal cancer. We have deep knowledge of the newest clinical trials for hypopharyngeal cancer. These studies may give you access to advanced therapies years before they’re available elsewhere.