Diagnosing & Treating Tonsil Cancer

Posted On: 06-09-2017
Diagnosing & Treating Tonsil Cancer
Tonsils filter things we ingest and inhale so that we don’t get an infection. While they are diligent in protecting us in this manner, tonsils are not immune to disease. Tonsil cancer, a type of oropharyngeal cancer, affects the palatine tonsils in the rear of the throat. For quite some time, tobacco and alcohol were the main causes of oral cancers, but recent studies show a link between HPV infection and oral cancers, specifically tonsil cancer.

Tonsil Cancer Risk Factors

HPV is now the leading cause of oral cancers, pushing it past tobacco use, which was the leading cause. More than 70 percent of new oral cancer cases were linked to HPV, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The study also reports that oral cancer cases linked to HPV will surpass cervical cancer cases, if current trends continue. Even though they are no longer the number one cause, tobacco and alcohol are still some of the main culprits in the developing tonsil cancer. Being male is also a main risk factor for tonsil cancer.

Symptoms of Tonsil Cancer

Throat cancers are often mistaken for another illness, such as strep throat or the common cold because of similar symptoms, including a sore throat. But, with throat cancers, the sore throat doesn’t resolve. Other potential tonsil cancer symptoms include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling a lump in the neck or throat
  • Persistent mouth pain
  • Throat or mouth sores
  • Swollen or inflamed tonsils
  • Neck ache
  • Ear ache
  • Bloody saliva


Diagnosing tonsil cancer begins with the patient and doctor discussing the patient’s medical history. A thorough examination follows, and includes inspection, palpation and any other techniques necessary to make a diagnosis. Diagnosis may also include the following tests.

  • Biopsy
  • MRI
  • X-Ray
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • Endoscopy
  • Blood tests

Treatment Options

Once a proper diagnosis is made, an individual treatment plan is developed. This plan specifically addresses type, size, location and depth of the cancerous tumor.

Radiation Therapy

With radiation therapy, high energy beams and rays are used to kill cancer-causing cells. This type of therapy can be used for tonsil cancer in its early stages, but it is typically used along with chemotherapy or surgery. Patients receiving this treatment may receive a type known as intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). Highly accurate and specific, IMRT targets tonsil cancer cells while limiting radiation exposure to surrounding normal tissue.


Chemotherapy can be administered intravenously or orally as a way to disrupt the growth of tonsil cancer cells. It is also a palliative therapy used to relieve the patient’s symptoms. Chemotherapy is often used with radiation or surgery. For patients who are not candidates for surgery, chemotherapy may slow the growth of tumors.


Surgery is an option for any stage of tonsil cancer, but it is commonly used during the early stages as a stand-alone treatment when tumors are small and have not spread beyond the tonsil area. Tumors that have grown or advanced may require a treatment plan that includes surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

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