Hypopharyngeal cancer is a rare type of throat cancer. It affects the bottom part of the throat, called the hypopharynx. Throat cancer symptoms (such as a sore throat) can look a lot like the common cold. Tobacco and alcohol use cause most head and neck cancers. Treatment often includes a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Hypopharyngeal cancer is a rare form of throat cancer. Healthcare providers also call it a head and neck cancer. It develops in the bottom part of the throat (called the hypopharynx), just behind your voicebox (larynx).
Most hypopharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cancer happens in cells that make up the lining of the throat.
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Hypopharyngeal cancer and laryngeal cancer are both throat cancers. But they affect different parts of the throat.
Hypopharyngeal cancer develops in cells that make up the lower part of the pharynx, right above the esophagus. Laryngeal cancer grows inside tissues of the larynx (commonly called the voicebox).
The pharynx is a tube that runs down the inside of your neck. It’s the part of the throat behind your nasal cavity and mouth. It acts as a bridge to other body parts so you can breathe, talk and swallow.
One end of the pharynx starts behind your nose (called nasopharynx). The other end connects to the esophagus (tube that takes food and drink to the stomach). It also connects to the larynx.
Cancer can develop in other parts of the pharynx:
The larynx sits in front of the pharynx. It leads to your trachea (windpipe). Inside the larynx are your vocal cords, which help you talk.
You can feel the vocal cords vibrate if you say something with your fingers touching your neck, just below your chin. The larynx is also a key part of the passageway to the lungs, allowing you to breathe.
Hypopharyngeal cancer makes up a small portion of head and neck cancer cases. Overall, about 65,000 people in the U.S. receive a head and neck cancer diagnosis each year. Hypopharyngeal cancer accounts for less than 3,000 of those cases. In general, hypopharyngeal cancer rates have declined in recent years.
Anyone can get hypopharyngeal cancer. But it typically affects more men than women, mostly after age 50.
Certain risk factors make it more likely you could develop hypopharyngeal cancer. Having one or more risk factors does not guarantee you’ll get the disease. Sometimes, though, cancer can occur without risk factors. However, making healthy choices (like quitting smoking) has the potential to prevent cancer.
Hypopharyngeal cancer risk factors include:
Cancer occurs when something causes the DNA inside healthy cells to mutate (change) in a certain way. This change causes cells to grow out of control.
Left untreated, cancer cells may form a mass or tumor. Some cancer cells spread to other areas of the body.
Much remains unknown about why healthy cells turn into cancer when they do. So far, research shows that tobacco and alcohol play a big role in causing many head and neck cancers. This is also true for hypopharyngeal cancer.
Alcohol and tobacco substances damage cells in the mouth and throat over time. They cause at least 3 out of 4 head and neck cancers. What’s clear: The more (and longer) you drink alcohol or use tobacco, the greater your risk of getting hypopharyngeal cancer.
Hypopharyngeal cancer usually doesn’t cause clear-cut symptoms. People with early disease may notice no signs of throat cancer at all.
Many hypopharyngeal cancer symptoms can look like routine, very treatable conditions. Your healthcare provider can help you find out what’s wrong and guide you to the right treatment.
Hypopharyngeal cancer may cause:
Your healthcare provider will start by examining your symptoms. Your provider may ask you questions about how long you’ve had symptoms and whether (or how much) you use alcohol or tobacco. These details can help your provider decide whether you need more tests.
During a physical exam, your provider will probably feel your neck to check for swollen lymph nodes. They may look down your throat with a small mirror to look for anything unusual.
Healthcare providers may use one or more tests to diagnose hypopharyngeal cancer:
Staging is part of the cancer diagnosis process. It groups cancers according to specific characteristics (such as tumor size and cancer spread).
Cancer staging is complex. Your provider will review all of your test results before determining the cancer stage.
In general, a lower cancer stage (such as stage 0 or 1) means earlier disease. Higher stages (stages 2 to 4) describe increasingly advanced disease. A larger tumor and cancer that has spread beyond the throat are examples of more advanced disease.
Cancer cells can act unpredictably. Nearby lymph nodes are usually one of the first places providers check for cancer spread.
In more advanced cases, hypopharyngeal cancer cells may spread to:
Your care team will design a treatment plan based on your situation. Treatments that are used are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Your treatment recommendation will be based on a number of factors and may involve more than one treatment type.
Your provider will consider a tumor’s size and location as well as other factors. Some people need more than one surgery.
First, your surgeon will remove as much of a tumor as possible. They may also remove other tissues where cancer may have spread, such as lymph nodes or neck structures.
Surgery options include:
Your recovery process depends on how complicated your surgery is. Your surgeon will prepare you for what to expect.
Surgery may affect how you eat, breathe or talk in small or big ways. In some cases, changes (like a laryngectomy) may be permanent. Before your surgery, you may want to ask your provider about:
The prognosis for people with hypopharyngeal cancer varies. Earlier disease responds better to treatment. Unfortunately, hypopharyngeal cancer often gets diagnosed at later stages. That’s because throat cancer symptoms may not be noticeable until the cancer has become more advanced.
Researchers continue to explore new therapies through clinical trials. Ask your provider if a hypopharyngeal cancer trial may be a treatment option for you.
Yes, surgery to remove a hypopharyngeal tumor may offer a cure in certain situations. A cure is most likely for small tumors with no cancer spread. For more advanced cases, newer cancer drugs and radiation therapies may offer promising treatment potential.
Talk to your provider about how often you may need follow-up visits after cancer treatment ends. Hypopharyngeal cancer sometimes comes back. Also, having one type of head and neck cancer puts you at increased risk for developing another type, such as laryngeal cancer.
Regular follow-up visits can help you and your provider stay on top of any changes in your health. You can reduce your risk of head and neck cancer by:
If you have hypopharyngeal cancer, you may want to ask your provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Hypopharyngeal cancer is a rare type of throat cancer (also called head and neck cancer). It may cause common symptoms (like a sore throat or ear pain). Get checked out if you have a sore throat or unexplained ear pain that doesn’t go away. You can’t always prevent cancer. But in this case, not smoking and limiting alcohol can make a big difference in reducing your risk. It’s never too late to quit smoking or make other healthy changes. If you’ve been diagnosed with hypopharyngeal cancer, ask your provider if surgery or clinical trials may benefit you.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/05/2021.
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