Tonsil cancer is a form of oropharyngeal cancer that occurs when the cells that make up the tonsils grow out of control and form lesions or tumors.
There are three types of tonsils:
- pharyngeal tonsils (adenoids) at the back of the throat
- palatine tonsils on the sides of the throat
- lingual tonsils at the base of the tongue
Most tonsil cancer forms in the palatine tonsils. But cancer can also develop in the lingual tonsils and the pharyngeal tonsils.
Tonsil cancer is becoming increasingly common in the United States. It is often caused by past infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). The good news about HPV-positive tonsil cancer is that the prognosis is often very good.
Tonsil Cancer Symptoms
The most common symptom of tonsil cancer is an enlarged tonsil. If both tonsils are swollen or enlarged, the problem is less likely to be tonsil cancer, but you should still speak with your doctor about your condition.
Other tonsil cancer symptoms include:
- a lump in the neck or throat
- a persistent sore throat
- difficulty swallowing
- ear or jaw pain
Tonsil Cancer Risk Factors
The main cause of tonsil cancer in the United States is prior infection with HPV. Smoking and chewing tobacco as well as heavy alcohol use are also common risk factors for tonsil cancer.
Having previously had your tonsils removed does not eliminate your risk for tonsil cancer. Cancer can still form in the tissue that was left behind.
Tonsil Cancer Treatment
Treatment for tonsil cancer may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery.
Which approach to care is right for you will depend on a variety of factors. These include the size, stage, and HPV status of the tumor, as well as your overall health and treatment preferences.
If you have HPV-positive tonsil cancer, MSK’s experts may be able to offer specialized approaches to ensure that you receive just the right amount of treatment. Our goal is to minimize the impact of cancer on your quality of life without affecting your chances of a cure.