What is Tonsil Cancer?
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What is Tonsil Cancer?

What is Tonsil Cancer?

This information is provided by Dr. Navneet Sharda as an educational source pertaining to tonsil cancer. It is not intended as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified healthcare provider.

Tonsil cancer is also called Pharyngeal Cancer. This cancer develops in the part of the throat just behind the mouth. Initially the symptoms are seen in the local region, but as it spreads the symptoms might be seen in other areas too. Tonsil cancer is an uncommon type of cancer, comprising only 1 percent of all cancer diagnoses every year.

However, while uncommon, mortality rates for tonsil cancer are high. Of the roughly 8,000 cases of tonsil cancer diagnosed each year in the US, about 3,000 (nearly 40 percent) prove fatal. The causes of tonsil cancer is primarily associated with smoking.  Excessive alcohol use is another causative agent ( carcinogen ) that can cause normal tonsil tissue to “jump the fence” and become a tonsil cancer.

As per Dr. Nav Sharda, any kind of chronic irritant to the tissues can damage the tissues repetitively and lead to the evolution of cancer in subsequent years.  Stopping smoking and limiting alcohol use are the best ways to avoid tonsil cancer.


Tonsil Cancer Symptoms

The first signs of tonsil cancer are often a sore throat and pain radiating from the cancerous tonsil to the ear. Mouth sores that do not heal are also possible tonsil cancer symptoms.

Other possible tonsil cancer symptoms include:

* bleeding

* difficulty chewing

* difficulty speaking

* difficulty swallowing

* localized pain (often radiating to the ears)

* problems with face, eye and jaw movements

* swollen lymph nodes in the neck.



The diagnosis of tonsil cancer is made by telling your family physician what symptoms you have and having the physician make an appointment with an otolaryngologist ( ear, nose & throat specialist ).

The otolaryngologist should be board certified and experienced with head and neck cancer therapy.  The otolaryngologist will review your history, risk factors and do a complete examination of you head and neck.  If the suspected tumor is easily seen through the mouth, a small biopsy will be taken in the office to confirm the diagnosis.  If nothing can be seen then the otolaryngologist will arrange to take the patient to the operating room and, while the patient is asleep,  will look in the throat, lungs and esophagus for the source of the metastasis.   Biopsies will be taken of any suspicious sites.  If no tumor can be found ( primary tumor site ),  and if a neck mass is present, the surgeon will either do an open biopsy through a specially planned neck incision or do a needle biopsy of the mass.

Once the tissue diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil has been made therapy will be decided upon.  If the tumor is small then a simple tonsillectomy and radiation therapy may be used. For larger tumors, larger surgeries – possibly including a neck dissection and jaw bone resection – may be required with radiation therapy given 2 to 4 weeks after the surgery.  Chemotherapy is generally not  effective in squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil although as newer agents become available this may change.  Lymphoma of the tonsil is frequently treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.  Surgery is generally not used except to make the original diagnosis through a biopsy. The earlier a tonsil cancer is diagnosed the higher the long term chances of cure.


Tonsil Cancer Treatment

Tonsil cancer treatment depends on the size of the tumor and what stage of development the cancer has reached. Common treatments for tonsil cancer treatments include any combination of the following:

* Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy, which uses medication (as either pills or injections) to kill cancer cells, can help shrink tonsil cancer tumors prior to surgery. Tonsil cancer chemotherapy usually employs two medications: 5-flurouracil and cisplatin. Taken in combination, the two medications produce better results than either drug used independently.

Chemotherapy is not usually used alone when treating tonsil cancer. Research suggests, however, that a combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy help treat advanced cancer of the tonsil by reducing the symptoms of this condition.


* Radiotherapy: Radiotherapy uses radioactive waves to kill cancer cells. Small cancerous growths can be successfully treated with radiation alone. Larger, more advanced cancer of the tonsils may require radiotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery, followed by post-surgical radiotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells.


* Surgery: Surgical removal of tonsil cancer removes the area of the throat containing the tumor. While small tonsil cancer tumors can be removed during day surgery with local anesthetic, larger tumors typically require a hospital stay. The larger the tumor, the more complicated tonsil cancer surgery becomes.


Once the procedure has been done, recovery may require the rebuilding of part of the soft palate and/or tongue may be required. Speech may be affected by tonsil cancer surgery. While this is often a temporary side effect, alterations in speech can be permanent.

Success rates for curing tonsil cancer vary. Approximately 50 percent of patients survive at least five years after diagnosis with proper treatment. After treatment, it is necessary to watch for a return of tonsil cancer symptoms: Signs of tonsil cancer reoccur in 25 percent.

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