Laryngeal Cancer (Cancer of the Larynx)

What is laryngeal cancer?

Laryngeal cancer includes cancerous cells found in any part of the larynx, which consists of the glottis, the supraglottis, and the subglottis.

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 through 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.

Approximately 12,300 people are expected to be diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in the U.S. in 2013. About 3,600 deaths are expected to occur in 2013, reports the American Cancer Society.

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 does not go away

  • A sore throat that does not go away

  • Feeling of a lump in the throat

  • Hoarseness or voice change

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Frequent choking on food

  • Pain when swallowing

  • Trouble breathing

  • Noisy breathing

  • Ear pain that does not go away

  • A lump in the neck

  • Unplanned weight loss

  • Bad breath

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

What causes laryngeal cancer?

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

Risk factors for laryngeal cancer

Risk factors include:

  • Tobacco use

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Poor nutrition

  • Gender. Laryngeal cancer is more common in men than in women.

  • Age. Most people who get laryngeal cancer are 65 or older. 

  • Race. Laryngeal cancer is more common in African-Americans.

  • Workplace exposures. People exposed to wood dust, paint fumes, asbestos, and some other chemicals appear to be at increased risk for laryngeal cancer. 

  • GERD. Gastroesophageal reflux disease is a risk factor for esophageal cancer and is being studied as a possible risk factor for laryngeal cancer. 

How is laryngeal cancer diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, the health care provider may carefully examine 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 narrow, 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 doctor 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 in the treated area

  • Surgery to remove the cancerous cells or tumor

  • Chemotherapy to shrink tumors or kill cancerous cells that may have spread to other parts of the body

  • Targeted therapy to kill cancerous cells