Tonsil Cancer


What Is A Tonsil?

The tonsils sit towards the back of the throat, one on either side. They consist of lymphoid tissue, which contains lymphocytes – cells that help combat disease.

The tonsils trap and destroy bacteria and viruses. They can change in size and often swell with blood to help trap bacteria and viruses, such as when a person has a cold.


What Is Tonsil Cancer?

Tonsil cancer is a common form of oropharyngeal malignancy. Its incidence is sharply rising due to the increasing prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV)-induced cancers. The presence of HPV can dramatically alter the prognosis of tonsillar cancer.

Tonsil cancer is relatively rare and living with a rare form of cancer can be challenging. Tonsil cancer is often diagnosed late in the disease, when cancer has spread to nearby areas, such as the tongue and the lymph nodes.

Tonsil cancer begins when cancerous cells develop in the tonsils. It can occur in people who have had their tonsils removed, as some tonsil tissue may remain after surgery. Drinking alcohol, smoking, and carrying HPV appear to increase the risk of getting tonsil cancer.


What Are the Early and Common Symptoms?

Many people with tonsil cancer may not notice any symptoms even after they’re diagnosed.

The major symptom of tonsil cancer is having one tonsil larger than the other. Another common symptom is a persistent sore throat. It’s not uncommon for the first symptom to be a lump in the neck.         

Other symptoms may include:

  • change in speaking voice quality
  • fatigue
  • unexplained weight loss
  • ear pain, especially on only one side, the same side as the affected tonsil
  • difficulty swallowing or opening the mouth
  • bleeding from the mouth – very rare

Having one or more of these symptoms doesn’t mean you have tonsil cancer. Several non-cancerous problems cause the same symptoms.

It’s important to see a specialist if you have a tonsil infection that doesn’t get better with antibiotics or unexplained ear pain that doesn’t go away.        


What Are the Causes and What Increases the Risk of Tonsil Cancer?

In the past, the known risk factors for tonsil cancer were being older and using tobacco or alcohol. People who both smoke and drink heavily have double the chances of developing cancers in their throat. But now there seems to be an increased rate of tonsil cancer in patients who don't smoke or drink. There is some evidence that it's related to the human papillomavirus (HPV).

HPV is a common virus associated with sexual contact. Tonsil cancer caused from HPV is a type of squamous cell carcinoma.

As with all cancers, tonsil cancer results from a combination of factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and environment.


How Is Tonsil Cancer Diagnosed?

The diagnosis for tonsil cancer would start with an examination of your mouth and throat. The doctor might feel your neck for lumps and use a mirror and a bright light to examine the inside of your mouth. If any abnormal areas are found, a sample of cells might be biopsied for lab testing. You may also have imaging tests like CT, MRI, or PET scans done.


How Is Tonsil Cancer Treated?

Treatment for tonsil cancer might involve surgery to remove the cancer cells. Surgeons might be able to access small cancers through your mouth. Larger cancers might require opening up the neck. Other treatment options might include radiation therapy and chemotherapy.


How to Prevent Tonsil Cancer?

  1. The best way to prevent cancer in the tonsils is to quit smoking, avoid tobacco products or marijuana. Not chewing tobacco or using snuff also helps. Smoking is the largest cause of cancers in the head and neck region.

  2. Avoid being around smokers and in areas where smoking is common because second-hand smoke may also increase the chances of developing cancers in the head and neck.

  3. Protect yourself from HPV by limiting the number of sexual partners. Using a condom doesn’t protect you from HPV as it can also spread during oral sex.

  4. Get HPV vaccinations to prevent HPV infection, before your first time sex. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all pre-teen girls and boys to have HPV vaccination.

  5. See your doctor and dentist routinely. By examining your mouth, they can help detect tonsil cancer early.

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