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Is the Lump in My Throat Cancer?

May 12, 2023

If it pops up before a big presentation, a lump in your throat is probably just nerves. But what if the feeling doesn’t go away?

“The vast majority of time, the sensation of a ‘lump’ in your throat is nothing concerning,” says Clinton Kuwada, MD, co-director of the Head and Neck Oncology Program with the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute at Hartford Hospital.

However, a persistent, palpable lump in the throat is the most common symptom of head and neck cancer, he adds.

So when should you see a doctor? Dr. Kuwada offers the tell-tale signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer and how it’s diagnosed and treated.

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What do you feel?

If you can feel – with your fingers pressed to the side of your neck, under your jaw near the lymph nodes – a lump, even if it doesn’t hurt, Dr. Kuwada suggests talking to your primary care physician. They may refer you to a head and neck cancer specialist for follow-up.

“A persistent lump in the neck is concerning when it’s more than 2 centimeters across,” he continues.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Trouble swallowing
  • Cough
  • Throat pain
  • Ear pain
  • Hoarseness or other changes in your voice

> Related: Don’t Miss These 6 Early Signs of Mouth Cancer

But symptoms aren’t universal

Different types of head and neck cancers can present differently – including the most common type of throat cancer.

“Currently, the most common type of throat cancer is related to the human papilloma or HPV virus, and, often it does not include a sore throat or difficulty swallowing.”

From diagnosis to treatment

Typically, people coming in with an abnormal, palpable lump will be sent for an ultrasound or CT scan of the neck to examine the area, Dr. Kuwada says.

“We need to evaluate the throat for the source of cancer. Enlarged lymph nodes can be caused by metastatic cancer to the lymph node and, if this is the case, the throat needs to be evaluated to potentially identify the source of the cancer,” he explains.

Once a diagnosis is determined, treatment can begin. The best treatment of throat cancer, Dr. Kuwada says, typically involves the expertise of a multidisciplinary team of surgical specialists, radiation oncologists and medical oncologists.

Treatment varies by patient, but can include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or a combination.

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Treatment works

When head and neck cancers are caught early, the treatment success rate is more than 75%, Dr. Kuwada says.

“It’s important to always ask a medical professional if you feel or sense that something is wrong in your body,” he adds.

“Early detection is the best way to save lives from cancer.”