Laryngeal Cancer

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What is laryngeal cancer?

Cancer is made of changed cells that grow out of control. The changed (abnormal) cells often grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. Cancer cells can also grow into (invade) nearby areas. And they can spread to other parts of the body. This is called metastasis. Laryngeal cancer starts in the voice box (larynx), which is located in your neck. It is about 2 inches long and looks like a tube. The larynx makes sound for speaking. You use the larynx when you breathe, talk, and swallow. The larynx is located at the top of the windpipe (trachea). The trachea is the tube that carries air between the throat and lungs. 

The larynx has 3 main parts:

  • Glottis. This is where the vocal cords are.
  • Supraglottis. This is located above the vocal cords.
  • Subglottis. This is below the vocal cords, where the larynx connects to the trachea.

Who is at risk for laryngeal cancer?

A risk factor is anything that may increase your chance of having a disease. The exact cause of someone’s cancer may not be known. But risk factors can make it more likely for a person to have cancer. Some risk factors may not be in your control. But others may be things you can change. The risk factors for laryngeal cancer include:

  • Using tobacco
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Being a man
  • Being age 65 or older
  • Being African American or white
  • Eating a diet that is low in some vitamins and minerals
  • Having an inherited syndrome, such as Fanconi anemia or dykeratosis congenita
  • Exposure to certain chemicals

Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk factors for laryngeal cancer and what you can do about them.

Can laryngeal cancer be prevented?

Researchers don’t yet know how to prevent this type of cancer. But you may be able to lower your risk by not using any form of tobacco.

Are there any screening tests for laryngeal cancer? 

There is no recommended screening test for laryngeal cancer. Screening tests check for diseases in people who don't have symptoms.

What are the symptoms of laryngeal cancer?

Symptoms of laryngeal cancer can depend upon where the cancer is in the larynx. They can include:

  • Hoarseness that lasts longer than 2 weeks
  • Lump in the neck or feeling that something is stuck in your throat
  • Sore throat
  • Earache
  • Trouble swallowing or breathing
  • A cough or sore throat, or both, that won't go away
  • Choking on food. This can happen as the tumor grows.
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Bad breath
  • Ear pain that doesn't go away

Many of these may be caused by other health problems. But it is important to see your healthcare provider if you have these symptoms. Only a healthcare provider can tell if you have cancer.

How is laryngeal cancer diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have laryngeal cancer, you will need exams and tests to be sure. Your healthcare provider will ask you about your health history, your symptoms, risk factors, and family history of disease. He or she will also give you a physical exam. You may get one or more tests.

If your doctor finds abnormal areas of tissue, you'll need a biopsy. A biopsy is the only way to know if a lump or change is cancer. Small pieces of tissue are taken out and checked for cancer cells.

After a diagnosis of laryngeal cancer, you’ll likely have other tests. These help your healthcare providers learn more about your cancer. They can help determine the stage of the cancer. The stage is how much and how far the cancer has spread (metastasized) in your body. It is one of the most important things to know when deciding how to treat the cancer.

Once your cancer is staged, your healthcare provider will talk with you about what the stage means for your treatment. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider to explain the stage of your cancer to you in a way you can understand.

How is laryngeal cancer treated?

Your treatment choices depend on the type of laryngeal cancer you have, test results, and the stage of the cancer. The goal of treatment may be to cure you, control the cancer, or help ease problems caused by the cancer. Talk with your healthcare team about your treatment choices, the goals of treatment, and what the risks and side effects may be.

Types of treatment for cancer are either local or systemic. Local treatments remove, destroy, or control cancer cells in one area. Surgery and radiation are local treatments. Systemic treatment is used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled around your body. When taken by pill or injection, chemotherapy and targeted therapy are systemic treatments. You may have just one treatment or a combination of treatments. There are 4 main treatment methods for laryngeal cancer:

  • Surgery
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapy

Talk with your healthcare providers about your treatment options. Make a list of questions. Think about the benefits and possible side effects of each option. Talk about your concerns with your healthcare provider before making a decision.