Tonsil cancer is the most common form of oropharyngeal cancer. The condition is commonly linked to HPV (human papilloma virus) infection, though it can also be caused by heavy alcohol and tobacco use. Tonsil cancer treatments include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Tonsil cancer occurs when abnormal cells in your tonsils grow out of control, forming tumors or lesions. Tonsil cancer is the most common form of oropharyngeal cancer. You don’t have to have tonsils to get tonsil cancer. Even if you’ve had a tonsillectomy, you can still develop cancer in the tissue that’s left behind.
Tonsil cancer can develop at any age, but it’s more common in people over the age of 50. People assigned male at birth (AMAB) are three to four times more likely than people assigned female at birth (AFAB) to develop the condition. Additionally, white people are slightly more likely than Black people to be diagnosed with tonsil cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, there’s a 1 in 60 chance that males will develop tonsil cancer in their lifetime. For females, there is a 1 in 140 chance. There has been a recent upsurge in tonsil cancer cases due to the increasing prevalence of HPV-related cancers.
In most cases, tonsil cancer doesn’t involve the formation of cysts. However, tonsil cancer can cause some of the same symptoms as tonsil cysts, including difficulty swallowing and feeling like there’s something stuck in the back of your throat.
Some of the most common tonsil cancer symptoms include:
Some people with tonsil cancer describe feeling as though something is stuck in their throats. You may also have pain in the mouth, throat or ears. However, symptoms are different for everyone, so the warning signs may not always be obvious.
Experts know that tonsil cancer develops when healthy cells undergo DNA mutations. However, they’re not exactly sure what causes this process to begin with. Research in recent years confirms that HPV (human papilloma virus) plays a significant role in the development of tonsil cancer. Cases that are caused by HPV are typically diagnosed at a younger age and generally respond better to treatment.
In addition, tonsil cancer has been linked to tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption. People with decreased immunity — such as organ transplant recipients and individuals with HIV — are also more likely to develop tonsil cancer.
Your healthcare provider will perform a comprehensive examination of your tonsils to assess the size and location of the tumor. They'll also check your throat, neck, ears and nose to determine if the cancer has spread.
In some cases, yes. Tonsil cancer lesions may appear as sores. Sometimes the signs aren’t so obvious, though. So, if your provider finds anything suspicious, they will likely order more tests.
Your healthcare provider may recommend:
There are a few different options. Treatment depends on the size and location of your tumor and whether or not it has spread to other parts of your body. Possible options include:
Radiation therapy is commonly used to treat cancers of the head and neck. There are possible short-term side effects, including:
Recovery times depend on several factors, including the severity of your condition and your own body’s healing capacity. People who undergo TORS for tonsil cancer usually experience the fastest recovery, which typically takes a few weeks.
It usually takes several weeks to complete a course of radiation therapy or chemotherapy for tonsil cancer. And it may be several months before you start feeling like yourself again.
There are several things you can do to reduce your risk for tonsil cancer:
If you’ve been diagnosed with tonsil cancer, you’ll work with a team of healthcare professionals. They will talk with you about your symptoms and discuss your treatment options with you in detail.
Like most cancers, high-grade tumors tend to spread more quickly than low-grade ones. That’s why it’s so important to see your healthcare provider at the very first sign of trouble.
Statistically, tonsil cancer isn’t likely to be fatal. As with most cancers, treatment is most successful when the condition is detected and treated in the early stages. Tonsil cancer that’s related to HPV has an overall survival rate of 85% to 90%. That means that 8.5 to 9 people out of 10 who are diagnosed with tonsil cancer are still alive in five years. Survival rates are estimates only, and they’re based on people who have been diagnosed with tonsil cancer in the past. They can’t tell you how successful your treatment will be or how long you will live. To learn more about survival rates, ask your healthcare provider.
If you experience symptoms — such as a sore in the back of your mouth, a persistent sore throat or blood in your saliva — for longer than three weeks, call and make an appointment with your healthcare provider. If you’re currently undergoing treatment for tonsil cancer, inform your provider if you notice any new symptoms. They can help ease your discomfort and improve your quality of life.
If you’ve been diagnosed with tonsil cancer, here are some questions to consider asking your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cancer is a scary word that can bring about feelings of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. But it’s important to know that there are advanced treatment options that can successfully treat tonsil cancer, especially when it’s caught during the early stages. If you’ve been diagnosed with tonsil cancer, consider joining a support group. Talking with others who are going through the same thing can provide emotional and mental support throughout your healthcare journey.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/21/2021.
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