What Is Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Tonsil?

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  • Originally Written By: C. Webb
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2019
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Squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil is the most commonly diagnosed head and neck cancer. An estimated 90 percent of tonsil cancers are squamous cell cancers, which basically means that the growths originate on the tonsils' outermost layer. Anyone at any age can develop this condition, but males over 40 who drink heavily and use tobacco products tend to be most at risk. If the problem is caught early enough, people usually don’t have many complications. Normal cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation are typically required, and the tonsils are usually removed in their entirety, as well. So long as the cancer hasn’t spread, the survival rate is usually quite good. Like most cancers, though, squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil can spread to other skin and organ tissues, and in some cases is fatal. It isn’t always possible to completely prevent this type of cancer, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle and submitting to regular medical check-ups is usually the best way to monitor things and catch problems like this one early on.


Understanding Squamous Cell Cancers Generally

In general, a carcinoma is a cancerous growth that begins on the outermost layer of tissue. This type of growth can occur almost anywhere; on the skin, on an organ, or even on an individual cell. When it’s specifically a squamous cell carcinoma, though, it occurs on the outermost layer of the skin, known as the epidermis. The tonsils are made of lymphatic tissue that is coated in the same squamous cells as the skin, and as such can be a site for this sort of cancerous growth.

Specific Risk Factors in the Tonsils

Sometimes people are genetically predisposed to developing cancerous growths, on the tonsils or elsewhere, and sometimes the growths also happen as a result of some sort of mutation or defect in the way cells reproduce. This is usually the explanation given when children develop this condition, for instance, or when it strikes despite every precaution.

As with many cancers, though, there are a number of factors that can make developing squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil more likely. These include using tobacco products, not taking proper care of teeth, eating too few vegetables and fruits, and heavy alcohol use over a sustained period of time. Some studies have also suggested that people who have previously contracted the human papillomavirus (HPV) are at increased risk. The cessation of high-risk behaviors, including drinking, smoking, and unprotected sex, may help decrease a person’s risk of this condition, though it does not eliminate it.

Major Symptoms

A persistent sore throat or cough are usually the most common symptoms of this condition. In addition, an earache that will not go away, bleeding from the mouth, a lump in the neck, and difficulty swallowing can be indicators of a larger issue. Of course, all of these symptoms are also associated with a range of other, usually less serious medical issues. Only an evaluation by a medical professional can rule out cancer, however, and as such, anyone who is concerned about pains or aches, particularly those that don’t seem to go away on their own, is usually wise to get a thorough medical workup.


A diagnosis of squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil usually requires an examination with a lighted scope and a biopsy of the tissue. Computerized tomography (CT) scans, medical resonance images (MRIs), and X-rays can also be helpful tools in the diagnostic process. Not all growths are cancerous, but those that are typically carry the name “malignant.” When a malignancy is confirmed, the next step is staging. This step identifies how far the cancer has advanced and whether it is contained in the throat or has also spread to other organs. Staging determines treatment options.

Treatment Options

Prognosis typically depends on several factors. The patient's overall health and ability to withstand treatment are important elements, as is the stage of the cancer when discovered and the location and size of the growth. Cancers caught early tend to have a high cure rate, whereas advanced cancers provide the biggest challenge for treatment success. Patients are often urged to maintain treatment plans, join support groups, and learn stress-relieving techniques.

Follow-up care for tonsil cancer includes regular medical check-ups. The physician will check for a re-occurrence and provide support for treatment consequences. This can include prescribing vitamins and nutritional supplements for patients with decreased ability to take in adequate nutrition from food due to the aftereffects of cancer treatment.


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Discuss this Article

Post 3

The hardest part about throat and tonsillar cancer is being unable to eat. I was tube fed for months until my treatment was over. That was very tough and I lost a lot of weight. Of course side effects of chemo medications make things even worse.

If I knew that I would face this in life, I would have never started smoking. I believe I developed tonsillar cancer from my heavy smoking.

Post 2
@turquoise-- Treatment depends on the individual, the stage of the cancer and whether it has spread or not, like you also said.

I think the tonsils are removed as a first step and then the doctor will determine if chemotherapy or radiation therapy will be necessary.

My dad had to have all of these treatments because his cancer was spreading. Squamous cell carcinoma in the tonsils is dangerous because it can spread very quickly to the throat, mouth and the lymph nodes. So whatever is necessary to keep that from happening and to treat the current cancer should be done in my opinion. My dad was clear of cancer before all of his chemotherapy and radiation therapy was completed. But he went through with the rest of the sessions to make sure the cancer wouldn't return.

Post 1

Does tonsillar squamous cell carcinoma require chemotherapy? If it has not spread, can it be treated just by removing the tonsils?

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