The pharynx is the medical term for the throat. Learn more with this 3D animation.

What is hypopharyngeal cancer?

Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). 

Hypopharyngeal cancer is a throat cancer that forms in the hypopharynx (lower part of the throat). Most hypopharyngeal cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, arising from the cells lining the inside of the throat. Hypopharyngeal cancer often occurs in pockets on either side of the hypopharynx (called the piriform sinuses). The symptoms and treatment options for hypopharyngeal cancer depend on the location of the cancer as well as several other factors such as, how large it is, and how far it has spread.

What causes hypopharyngeal cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. But we do know what makes some cancers more likely.

The two main causes of hypopharyngeal cancer are:
  • smoking (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) or using smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco). If a person smokes or has smoked in the past, they have a higher risk of getting hypopharyngeal cancer than someone who does not smoke. 

  • drinking alcohol. If a person drinks a lot of alcohol over many years, they have a higher risk of getting hypopharyngeal cancer, especially when combined with smoking.

Three out of four people with hypopharyngeal cancer have been a smoker or consumed alcohol regularly for a number of years.

Other factors that may increase the risk of hypopharyngeal cancer:
Being male – In Australia, men are 3 times more likely than women to get hypopharyngeal cancer
Age – most hypopharyngeal cancers occur in people aged 55 years and over
exposure to certain substances - like asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes and certain chemicals 
poor diet low in fruits and vegetables may be a risk factor