What is Hypopharyngeal Cancer: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prognosis

What is Hypopharyngeal Cancer?

Hypopharyngeal Cancer is quite a rare form of throat cancer which develops in the bottom half of the throat. This portion of the throat is called the hypopharynx and is located just behind the voice box or the larynx.  Hypopharyngeal Cancer belongs to the category of squamous cell carcinomas in which the cells that line the throat get affected.  According to studies, Hypopharyngeal Cancer constitutes about 3% of all forms of head and neck cancers which proves the rarity of the condition [1, 2, 3].

The most unfortunate thing about Hypopharyngeal Cancer is its prognosis. It has perhaps the worst 5 year survival rate among all forms of head and neck cancers, being roughly 30-35%.  Sometimes, Hypopharyngeal Cancer can be misinterpreted as a laryngeal cancer. However, both these conditions are quite different as they affect different parts of the throat. While Hypopharyngeal Cancer develops in cells that are present in the lower portion of the pharynx, laryngeal cancer develops within the tissues of the larynx or the voice box [1, 2, 3].

What Causes Hypopharyngeal Cancer?

A person is said to have cancer if the cells around a certain part of the body starts to multiply uncontrollably.  If timely diagnosis and treatment is not given, these cells grow in such numbers that they take the shape of a tumor and then start to spread to the adjoining portions of the body.  This is medically termed as metastasis [3].

The root cause as to why the cells start to grow uncontrollably is still not known but many studies show that excessive use of tobacco and alcohol have a major role to play, especially when it comes to head and neck cancers and Hypopharyngeal Cancer is no exception.  Alcohol and tobacco damage the cells of the mouth and throat with time resulting in Hypopharyngeal Cancer [3].

What are the Symptoms of Hypopharyngeal Cancer?

There are no symptoms that directly point towards Hypopharyngeal Cancer.  In fact, in some cases these cancers are completely asymptomatic. In some cases however a person may experience change in voice, a palpable lump along the throat, sore throat that does not go away despite treatment, and problems with swallowing.  Some people also complain of tinnitus that cannot be explained with regard to the cause [3].

How is Hypopharyngeal Cancer Treated?

Once a diagnosis of Hypopharyngeal Cancer is confirmed, the physician will formulate a treatment that best suits the patient.  The treatment will depend on the size of the tumor and whether it has spread to others parts of the body or not.  Frontline treatments is similar to other types of cancer and includes surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  Chemotherapy involves use of medications that kill all cells that have a potential to multiply.  The aim of this therapy is to shrink or decrease the size of the tumor.  This treatment is often preceded by surgery in order to kill any cancer cells that may be remaining throughout the body [3].

Radiation therapy involves directing radiation beams at the tumor site to shrink its size and destroy cancer cells.  The number of sessions that will be required of radiation therapy will be determined by the treating provider.  Another novel technique used to treat Hypopharyngeal Cancer is immunotherapy. This involves giving medications to boost the immune system to an extent that they start killing the cancer cells [3].

With regard to surgery, the size and extent of the tumor determines what surgery will be best suited for the patient or if more than one procedure will be required.  The surgery will involve removal of most of the tumor.  The surgeon may also remove certain neck structures to which the cancer may have spread [3].

The procedures that are most preferred for treatment of Hypopharyngeal Cancer include pharyngectomy which involves removal of a part of complete pharynx.  Another procedure done for treatment of Hypopharyngeal Cancer includes laryngopharyngectomy which involves removal of a part of both the larynx and the pharynx [3].

What Is The Prognosis Of Hypopharyngeal Cancer?

As stated, the overall prognosis of Hypopharyngeal Cancer is not that good despite treatment.  However, if the cancer is detected early then the chances are better of surviving but this is quite rare as in most cases Hypopharyngeal Cancer gets diagnosed very late mainly due to lack of symptoms until the cancer has spread [3].

Clinical trials and investigative therapies are still ongoing to look for better treatment options for Hypopharyngeal Cancer.  As of now, the five year survival rate is around 30-35% for people with Hypopharyngeal Cancer [3].

References:

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