Hypopharyngeal Cancer

General Information | Treatment Options | Additional Resources

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

Hypopharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the hypopharynx.

The hypopharynx is the bottom part of the pharynx (throat). The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose, goes down the neck, and ends at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus (the tube that goes from the throat to the stomach). Air and food pass through the pharynx on the way to the trachea or the esophagus.

Most hypopharyngeal cancers form in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the hypopharynx. The hypopharynx has 3 different areas. Cancer may be found in 1 or more of these areas.

Use of tobacco products and heavy drinking can affect the risk of developing hypopharyngeal cancer.

Risk factors include the following:

  • Smoking tobacco.
  • Chewing tobacco.
  • Heavy alcohol use.
  • Eating a diet without enough nutrients.
  • Having Plummer-Vinson syndrome.

Possible signs of hypopharyngeal cancer include a sore throat and ear pain.

These and other symptoms may be caused by hypopharyngeal cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A sore throat that does not go away.
  • Ear pain.
  • A lump in the neck.
  • Painful or difficult swallowing.
  • A change in voice.

Tests that examine the throat and neck are used to help detect (find) and diagnose hypopharyngeal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam of the throat: An exam in which the doctor feels for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas.
  • Endoscopy: A procedure used to look at areas in the throat that cannot be seen with a mirror during the physical exam of the throat. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the nose or mouth to check the throat for anything that seems unusual. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Head, neck, and chest x-rays: An x-ray of the head, neck, and organs and bones inside the chest. An x-ray is a type of energy beam that can go through the body and onto film, making a picture of areas inside the body.
  • Barium esophagogram: An x-ray of the esophagus. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus and x-rays are taken.
  • Esophagoscopy: A procedure to look inside the esophagus to check for abnormal areas. An esophagoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the mouth or nose and down the throat into the esophagus. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.
  • Bronchoscopy: A procedure to look inside the trachea and large airways in the lung for abnormal areas. A bronchoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through the nose or mouth into the trachea and lungs. Tissue samples may be taken for biopsy.
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer (whether it affects part of the hypopharynx, involves the whole hypopharynx, or has spread to other places in the body). Hypopharyngeal cancer is usually detected in later stages because early symptoms rarely occur.
  • The patient's age, gender, and general health.
  • The location of the cancer.
  • Whether the patient smokes during radiation therapy.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the cancer.
  • Keeping the patient's ability to talk, eat, and breathe as normal as possible.
  • The patient's general health.

Patients who have had hypopharyngeal cancer are at an increased risk of developing a second cancer in the head or neck. Frequent and careful follow-up is important.

After hypopharyngeal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the hypopharynx or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the hypopharynx or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan treatment. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose hypopharyngeal cancer are often also used to stage the disease.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for hypopharyngeal cancer:Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the hypopharynx. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I

In stage I, cancer has formed in one area of the hypopharynx only and the tumor is 2 centimeters or smaller.

Stage II

In stage II, the tumor is either:

  • larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters and has not spread to the larynx (voice box); or
  • found in more than one area of the hypopharynx or in nearby tissues.

Stage III

In stage III, one of the following is found:

  • The tumor is in only one area of the hypopharynx and is 2 centimeters or smaller; cancer has also spread to a single lymph node on the same side of the neck and the lymph node is 3 centimeters or smaller.
  • Cancer is in more than one area of the hypopharynx, is in nearby tissues, or is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters and is not in the larynx; cancer has also spread to a single lymph node on the same side of the neck and the lymph node is 3 centimeters or smaller.
  • The tumor is larger than 4 centimeters or has spread to the larynx; cancer may have spread to a single lymph node on the same side of the neck and the lymph node is 3 centimeters or smaller.

Stage IV

Stage IV is divided into stage IVA, IVB, and IVC as follows:

  • In stage IVA, the tumor:
    • can be any size and has spread to nearby soft tissue, connective tissue, the thyroid, or the esophagus; cancer may be found either in one lymph node on the same side of the neck (the lymph node is 3 centimeters or smaller) or in one or more lymph nodes anywhere in the neck (all of these lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller); or
    • is in only one area of the hypopharynx, is 2 centimeters or smaller, and has also spread to one or more lymph nodes anywhere in the neck (all of these lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller); or
    • is in more than one area of the hypopharynx, is in nearby tissues, or is larger than 2 centimeters but not larger than 4 centimeters and has not spread to the larynx; cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes anywhere in the neck (all of these lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller); or
    • is larger than 4 centimeters or has spread to the larynx; cancer has also spread to one or more lymph nodes anywhere in the neck (all of these lymph nodes are 6 centimeters or smaller).
  • In stage IVB, the tumor either:
    • has spread to nearby soft tissue, connective tissue, blood vessels, the thyroid, or the esophagus, and may have spread to lymph nodes of any size; or
    • is any size and has spread to lymph nodes that are larger than 6 centimeters.
  • In stage IVC, cancer has spread beyond the hypopharynx to other parts of the body.

Recurrent Hypopharyngeal Cancer

Recurrent hypopharyngeal cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer may come back in the hypopharynx or in other parts of the body.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service