Laryngeal cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the larynx. The larynx is a tube-shaped organ inside the neck that lies between the throat and the windpipe. Its main function is to produce sound for speaking.
Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case laryngeal cells) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms, called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissues and can spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor does not invade or spread.
The cause of laryngeal cancer is unknown.
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors include:
- Smoking (by far the most common high-risk behavior)
- Excessive use of alcohol
- Race: Black
- Age: 55 or older
- Sex: Male
- Occupational exposure to certain air pollutants such as wood dust, chemicals, and asbestos
- Gastroesophageal reflux–stomach acid that backs up into the esophagus and throat where it may come in contact with the larynx
- Weakened immune system
Symptoms may include:
- Persistent cough, hoarseness, or sore throat
- Abnormal lump in the throat or neck
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain when swallowing
- Frequent choking on food
- Difficulty breathing
- Noisy breathing
- Persistent ear pain or an unusual ear fullness or sensation in and around the skin of the ear
- Unplanned, significant weight loss
- Persistent bad breath
Note: These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious health conditions. A person experiencing these symptoms should see a doctor.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Tests may include:
Laryngoscopy–a thin, lighted tube inserted down the throat to examine the larynx
Biopsy–removal of a sample of laryngeal tissue to test for cancer cells
Chest X-ray–a test that uses radiation to take a picture of the larynx and nearby structures
CT Scan–a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the larynx
MRI Scan–a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of the inside of the larynx
Once laryngeal cancer is found, staging tests are performed to find out if the cancer has spread and, if so, to what extent. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. For early stage laryngeal cancer, either surgery or radiation alone is the most common and appropriate therapies offered. For more advanced disease, either radiation (with chemotherapy) or surgery followed by radiation is the most common treatments given.
Surgery–surgical removal of a cancerous tumor and nearby tissues, and possibly nearby lymph nodes. Surgeries for laryngeal cancer include:
Total Laryngectomy–removal of the larynx, including the vocal cords.
Partial Laryngectomy–removal of cancerous tissue while leaving as much of the vocal cords as possible.
Tracheotomy–making a hole in the neck below the larynx to help breathing. This may be temporarily necessary after surgery, or permanently placed in the case of laryngeal tumors that are too large to be removed.
Neck Dissection–removal of the lymph nodes and part of the neck muscles to determine the spread of cancer.
Radiation Therapy (or Radiotherapy)–the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Radiation may be:
External Radiation Therapy–radiation directed at the tumor from a source outside the body
Chemotherapy–the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy may be given in many forms including: pill, injection, and via a catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. Chemotherapy may be used to reduce the size of a particularly large cancer.
Since laryngeal cancer is extremely rare in nonsmokers, the best way to prevent this type of cancer is by not smoking. Other measures you can take to reduce your risk of laryngeal cancer include:
- Avoiding excessive alcohol use
- Protecting yourself from toxic exposures that have been linked to laryngeal cancer