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Information About Cancer
Head and Neck Cancer

Information About Laryngeal Cancer (Cancer of the Larynx)

The Larynx

The larynx, often referred to as the voice box, is a two-inch long tube-shaped organ located in the neck at the top of the trachea (windpipe). The cartilage in front of the larynx is sometimes called the "Adam's apple."

The vocal cords (or vocal folds) are two bands of muscle that form a "V" shape inside the larynx.

The area of the larynx where the vocal cords are located is called the glottis. The area above the cords is called the supraglottis, and the area below the cords is called the subglottis. The epiglottis is a flap at the top of the trachea that closes over the larynx to protect it from food that is swallowed into the esophagus.

Breath enters the body through the nose or mouth, and then travels to the larynx, trachea, and into the lungs. It exits along the same path. Normally, no sound is made by the vocal cords during breathing or exhaling.

When a person talks, the vocal cords tighten, move closer together, and air from the lungs is forced between them. This makes them vibrate and produces sound.

Source: National Cancer Institute

What is a risk factor?

A risk factor is anything that may increase a person's chance of developing a disease. It may be an activity, such as smoking, diet, family history, or many other things. Different diseases, including cancers, have different risk factors.

Although these factors can increase a person's risk, they do not necessarily cause the disease. Some people with one or more risk factors never develop the disease, while others develop disease and have no known risk factors.

But, knowing your risk factors to any disease can help to guide you into the appropriate actions, including changing behaviors and being clinically monitored for the disease.

What is laryngeal cancer?

Laryngeal cancer includes cancerous cells found in any part of the larynx - the glottis, the supraglottis, or the subglottis.

About 9,500 people are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in the US each year. Close to 3,800 die from the disease annually, reports the American Cancer Society. About 2,500 cases of hypopharyngeal cancer are diagnosed each year.

What are the symptoms of laryngeal cancer?

The following are the most common symptoms of laryngeal cancer. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
  • a cough that lasts
  • a sore throat that lasts
  • feeling of a lump in the throat
  • trouble swallowing
  • frequent choking on food
  • pain when swallowing
  • trouble breathing
  • noisy breathing
  • ear pain that lasts
  • a lump in the neck
  • unplanned weight loss
  • bad breath

The symptoms of laryngeal cancer may resemble other medical conditions or problems. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

What causes laryngeal cancer?

The exact cause of laryngeal cancer is not yet known.

Risk factors for laryngeal cancer:

The exact cause of laryngeal cancer is not yet known, however, there are certain risk factors that may increase a person's chance of developing cancer.
  • tobacco use

  • alcohol abuse

  • poor nutrition

  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)

  • human papillomavirus (HPV)

  • weakened immune system

How is laryngeal cancer diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, the physician may carefully feel the neck to check for lumps, swelling, tenderness, and other changes.

Two types of laryngoscopy may be performed:

  • indirect laryngoscopy - a small, long-handled mirror is inserted into the throat so parts of the larynx can be examined.

  • direct laryngoscopy - an instrument called a laryngoscope is inserted through the nose or mouth. The scope is a lighted tube, which provides a better view of the area than the indirect laryngoscopy.

A biopsy, removal of a sample of tissue to be evaluated under a microscope by a pathologist, may also be performed.

If cancerous cells are found, imaging procedures may be used to determine the extent, or stage of the cancer.

Treatment of laryngeal cancer:

Specific treatment for laryngeal cancer will be determined by your physician based on:
  • your age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of the disease
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the disease
  • your opinion or preference

Treatment may include one (or a combination of) the following:

  • radiation therapy (to kill cancerous cells or keep them from growing)
  • surgery (to remove the cancerous cells or tumor)
  • chemotherapy (to kill cancerous cells)