Cancers of the tonsils are one of several cancers of the upper aerodigestive tract (UAT), which share many common points. These cancers mostly affect men over the age of 50, and their main risk factor is the joint intoxication by alcohol and tobacco. As to tonsil cancer itself, it is not immune to these risk factors, but it is much more influenced by smoking. Cancer of the tonsils can be associated with other injuries of the upper aerodigestive tract.
Several signs may suggest tonsil cancer: difficulty swallowing (called odynophagia), or feeding (known as dysphagia), pain in the throat and sometimes the ear, a feeling of a foreign body in the throat and the appearance of cervical lymph nodes at the angle of the jaw. This is often a set of non-specific events but should attract attention in a smoker of fifty years or older. Fatigue, weight loss and decreased appetite in this context should also lead the latter to consult a professional.
Given these signs, the doctor will perform an examination of the oral cavity, and any suspicious lesion should be biopsied. The gold standard is an endoscopy, that is to say, the direct visualization of the cavities involved. Because of the similar risk factors for cancer, all of the upper aerodigestive tract is explored during the endoscopy, performed under general anesthesia and called a panendoscopy when the head and neck are involve. The suspicious lesion is biopsied, as well as other lesion that may be discovered. If one of them is cancerous, staging is necessary, i.e. the use of tests to highlight the existence of other cancer cells that have migrated through the lymphatic system, or metastases in other organs.
Several treatment options exist for tonsil cancer and will be dependent on the classification of the cancer. Often, chemotherapy is initially used to try to reduce the size of the tumor, and if it doesn't work then the tumor is removed surgically. The lymph nodes involved are treated by a "cleaning" process as well as by a dose of radiation.
To prevent the development of cancer of the tonsils, and by extension of all head and neck cancers, one should avoid exposure to tobacco smoke and alcohol.