Tonsil cancer affects the two oval-shaped pads located in the back of the mouth, called the tonsils, which are part of the body’s immune system. The tonsils consist of lymphoid tissue, which contain cells called lymphocytes that fight off disease
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cases of tonsil cancer are on the rise. Up to 93% of individuals in Western Europe diagnosed with throat and mouth cancers also tested positive for human papillomavirus (HPV).
Tonsil cancer may also occur in people who have had their tonsils removed if the tonsil tissue was not completely removed during surgery.
Many individuals with tonsil cancer don’t notice any symptoms until the cancer has progressed. Symptoms of tonsil cancer may be mistakenly attributed to other illnesses, such as tonsillitis or strep throat.
Signs of tonsil cancer include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling as if there is something stuck in the throat
- A persistent sore throat
- Difficulty chewing
- A white or red patch on the tonsil
- A sore on the back of the throat
- Persistent earache
- Unexplained weight loss
- Blood in the saliva
- Difficulty consuming citric foods and drinks, such as orange juice
Most cases of tonsil cancer are diagnosed after the cancer has spread to nearby areas, such as the tongue and the lymph nodes.
Potential causes of tonsil cancer include:
- Use of tobacco products
- High alcohol consumption
- HPV or HIV
- Over 50 years of age
Individuals may be at greater risk of developing tonsil cancer if they:
- Have human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Drink alcohol
When to Consult a Doctor
Patients experiencing symptoms that last for more than two weeks should schedule a visit to their physician’s office.
Diagnosing Tonsil Cancer
During an initial visit, the physician will ask the patient about their medical history, symptoms and any known risk factors.
The physician will also examine the patient’s mouth and throat and feel for lumps. If the physician notices any concerning signs, they will refer the patient to a specialist who will conduct additional testing.
The specialist may order blood and urine tests to screen for changes that may indicate cancer. A laryngoscopy may also be performed to check for visible signs of cancer. Imaging tests such as a CT, MRI, PET scan or x-ray will reveal internal changes that may show the cancer has spread.
A biopsy will conclusively confirm or deny the presence of cancerous cells. If the biopsy reveals cancer, then the physician will determine the cancer’s stage and its type and grade.
Treatment for tonsil cancer will depend on the stage, type and grade of the cancer. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and targeted therapy.
During surgery, the surgeon will remove the tonsils and additional tissue around the tumor to reduce the risk of leaving cancerous tissue behind. Some patients may need further surgery to restore their teeth, voice and other functions.
Some patients may benefit from having radiation therapy before and after surgery. Radiation therapy will shrink a tumor and destroy any remaining cancerous cells after the operation.