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Tumors that develop in the throat are normally squamous cell carcinomas, which begin as cancerous growths in the squamous cells that make up the lining of the digestive tract. The throat, or pharynx, begins behind the nose and extends about five inches until it reaches the esophagus. It is divided into three parts: the upper area behind the nose (nasopharynx), the middle section that includes the back of the mouth (oropharynx) and the lower section (hypopharynx). The larynx, often called the voice box, is found in the throat and contains the vocal cords and a piece of tissue called the epiglottis, which prevents food from entering your airway.

Cancer may develop in any of these areas, however the larynx and hypopharynx are most common. Early detection significantly improves outcomes, so it is important for patients to monitor their health and not dismiss symptoms that may seem “unimportant” such as a sore throat or headache that won’t go away or recurring pain in the neck and ear areas.

The oropharynx is at particular risk of developing cancer due to exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV). When this virus is found in the throat, it is known as oral HPV. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it is thought that oral HPV may be acquired through oral sex, however there are conflicting studies that both prove and disprove this theory.

The CDC reports that in the U.S. about seven percent of people have oral HPV. But only one percent have the type of oral HPV found in oropharyngeal cancers (HPV type 16). Oral HPV is about three times more common in men than in women.