Tonsil Cancer


Tonsil cancer is painful, but there are many treatment options.

The tonsils work hand in hand with the immune system, filtering away unwanted organisms and debris that enter the body through the mouth and nose. Tonsils can become irritated for many reasons. Most of the time, the inflammation resolves on its own, or with mild medical intervention. Occasionally, tonsil cancer is to blame for the symptoms.

This form of oropharyngeal cancer affects the area of the throat known as the palatine tonsils.


Risk Factors

As with other oropharyngeal cancers, excessive use of alcohol and tobacco are significant risk factors. Males are also more likely to develop tonsil cancer. In more recent years, research has established a definite link between human papillomavirus (HPV) and many forms of oral cancer, including tonsil cancer. In fact, studies have shown that up to 70% of new cases may be associated with HPV, making it the leading cause of oral cancers.


At first, tonsil cancer may be difficult to identify. A sore, irritated throat or swollen, inflamed tonsils may be mistaken for tonsillitis, strep throat, or other common viral ailments. Other warning signs include:

  • Persistent sore throat (longer than three weeks)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Feeling a lump in the throat or neck
  • Ear or neck pain
  • Unexplainable sores in the mouth or throat
  • Bloody saliva


When symptoms of possible tonsil cancer have been identified, a thorough history and physical is of utmost importance. Further testing will be based on each individual’s medical history, symptoms present, and any abnormal findings during the physical exam.

Multiple diagnostic imaging tools may be utilized to confirm tonsil cancer. An endoscope is often used to visually examine the throat. Any suspicious areas may be biopsied to look for cancerous cells under the microscope. Additional testing may include:

  • Blood testing
  • X-ray
  • CT scan
  • PET scan
  • MRI

Treatment Options

After tonsil cancer has been confirmed, an individualized treatment plan will be developed. Size, type, stage, and location of the tumor will all be considered. Age, overall health, symptoms, and personal preferences help determine each patient’s ideal course of treatment.

Radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery are the three most common treatment options used to combat tonsil cancer. Each may be used alone, or in combination, to achieve the best possible outcome.


Radiation directs highly-energized rays at the tumor in order to kill cancer cells. If the tumor was detected early, it may be used alone. Often, it is used in combination with chemotherapy and/or surgery. Advanced forms of radiation are being used to help reduce radiation exposure, improve accuracy, and minimize harm to surrounding healthy tissues.


Chemotherapy (either orally or intravenously) interferes with cancer cell growth. It is often used together with radiation and/or surgery. Chemotherapy may also be used in palliative care, to help relieve distressing symptoms (like difficulty swallowing) when surgery is not an option.


Some patients may require surgery to remove the tonsils or the affected area. Surgery is commonly used alone when the tumor is small and contained. It may also be required if other treatments have failed or if tumor growth is advanced.