What is Tonsil Cancer?

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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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Tonsil cancer is a rare type of malignancy that can affect people of any age, though it is most prevalent in males older than 50 who have a history of tobacco and alcohol use. A tumor that develops in the lymphoid tissue on one side of the throat can cause a noticeable bump on the neck and make swallowing difficult. Treatment for tonsil cancer is most effective when the tumor is detected early, and it usually involves a combination of surgery and radiation therapy. Left untreated, the cancer can quickly spread to other parts of the throat and mouth.

The tonsils are important sections of tissue that aid in the immune system's defense of viruses and bacteria. Their function can be compromised by the growth of malignant tumors, leading to frequent infections and illnesses. A person with tonsil cancer is likely to notice swelling or a lesion in the back of the throat, constant soreness, and bloody saliva. Difficulties swallowing and breathing are common as tumors grow larger. In some cases, tonsil cancer leads to the growth of visible lumps on the neck that may be hard and tender to the touch.


Most instances of tonsil cancer are directly tied to years of alcohol consumption and tobacco use. People with weakened immune systems are also at risk, especially individuals with HIV or congenital autoimmune disorders. People who do not consume enough fruits and vegetables can develop the cancer due to a lack of important vitamins to support the immune system. In addition, doctors believe that certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to cancer in the throat and mouth.

An individual who experiences any of the signs and symptoms of tonsil cancer should visit his or her primary care physician for an initial screening. The doctor can examine neck lumps and look into the throat for signs of damaged tissue. If the physician suspects cancer, the patient is usually referred to an otolaryngologist for further testing. Computerized tomography and magnetic resonance imaging scans are usually performed to check for tumors, and a tissue biopsy can confirm findings. Once a diagnosis has been made, specialists can determine the best course of treatment.

Surgeons usually attempt to remove tumors when they are found in their early stages. Small surgical tools and lights are inserted through the mouth and used to cut away entire masses of malignant tissue. If the cancer begins to spread, however, surgery may not be sufficient. A combination of surgery, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy can help to slow the progression of the cancer to other parts of the body. Patients may be given prescription medications for HPV or other underlying disorders, and instructed to abstain from tobacco and alcohol to prevent further complications.


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