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Tonsil cancer

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Sep 22, 2022.

Overview

Tonsil cancer is an abnormal growth of cells that forms in a tonsil. Your tonsils are two oval-shaped pads in the back of your mouth that are part of your body's germ-fighting immune system.

Tonsil cancer can cause difficulty swallowing and a sensation that something is caught in your throat. Tonsil cancer is often diagnosed late in the disease, when cancer has spread to nearby areas, such as the lymph nodes in the neck.

Treatments for tonsil cancer include surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Tonsils

Your tonsils are two oval-shaped pads in the back of your mouth. Your tonsils are part of your body's germ-fighting immune system.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of tonsil cancer include:

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor or dentist if you experience any persistent signs and symptoms that worry you.

Causes

Tonsil cancer forms when healthy cells in the tonsils develop changes in their DNA. A cell's DNA contains the instructions that tell a cell what to do. The changes tell the cells to grow out of control and to continue living when healthy cells would normally die. The accumulating cells form a tumor that can grow beyond the tonsils and spread to other areas of the body.

It's not clear what causes tonsil cancer, but doctors are finding that human papillomavirus (HPV) is increasingly playing a role. This common sexually transmitted infection is detected in most tonsil cancers in the United States. Tonsil cancer caused by HPV tends to occur at a younger age and is more likely to respond well to available treatments.

HPV and throat cancer

Human papillomavirus, also called HPV, is a common infection that's passed through sexual contact. It increases the risk of certain types of throat cancer. HPV has been linked to cancer that affects the soft palate, tonsils, back of the tongue, and the side and back wall of the throat.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase the risk of tonsil cancer include:

Prevention

To reduce your risk of tonsil cancer:

Diagnosis

Tests and procedures used to diagnose tonsil cancer include:

Your doctor uses information from these procedures to assign your cancer a stage. The stages of tonsil cancer range from 0 to IV. The earliest stages indicate a small cancer that may be confined to the tonsil or may have spread to a few nearby lymph nodes. Later stages indicate more-advanced cancer that has grown to involve many lymph nodes or has spread to other areas of the body.

Treatment

Which tonsil cancer treatments are best for you will depend on the size, stage and HPV status of your cancer, as well as your overall health and your preferences. Tonsil cancer treatment options may include surgery, radiation therapy, or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Researchers are studying whether people with HPV-related tonsil cancer can be treated with lower doses of radiation and chemotherapy. This less intense treatment causes fewer side effects and, in early studies, seems to be as effective as higher doses. If your tonsil cancer is found to be HPV-related, you and your doctor might consider a clinical trial studying less intense treatments.

Surgery

The goal of surgery for tonsil cancer is to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Surgery can be used to treat all stages of tonsil cancer.

Surgery is most often done through the mouth (transoral surgery). Surgeons pass specialized tools through the mouth to access the cancer and remove it with cutting tools or lasers.

In certain situations, it may be necessary to make a large incision in the neck to remove larger cancers and cancers that have spread to the lymph nodes. Reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation may be needed to restore your ability to eat, speak and swallow.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-powered beams of energy, such as X-rays or protons, to kill cancer cells.

Radiation therapy might be used alone to treat small cancers that haven't grown beyond the tonsil. Sometimes radiation therapy is used after surgery if the cancer can't be removed completely or if there's a risk that the cancer may have spread to the lymph nodes.

Radiation can also be combined with chemotherapy as an initial treatment or as an additional treatment after surgery. The chemotherapy makes the cancer cells more vulnerable to the radiation and may increase the effectiveness.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill cancer cells. For tonsil cancer, chemotherapy is usually combined with radiation therapy. It can also be used alone to slow the growth of tonsil cancer that has recurred or has spread to other areas of the body.

Rehabilitative services

Rehabilitation specialists in speech therapy, swallowing therapy, dietetics, physical therapy and occupational therapy help with rehabilitation that may be necessary after surgery or radiation therapy.

Coping and support

Learning you have any life-threatening illness can be devastating. With time you'll find ways to cope with your feelings, but you may find comfort in these strategies:

Preparing for an appointment

Start by making an appointment with your dentist or family doctor if you have signs or symptoms that worry you.

If your doctor or dentist is concerned that you may have tonsil cancer, you may be referred to:

Because appointments can be short, and because there's a lot of information to discuss, it's a good idea to be prepared. Here's some information to help you get ready, and what to expect from your doctor.

What you can do

Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For tonsil cancer, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:

In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may allow more time later to cover other points you want to address. Your doctor may ask:

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