Laryngeal Cancer (Cancer of the Larynx)

What is laryngeal cancer?

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

Approximately 12,290 people are expected to be diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in the US in 2009. Close to 3,660 deaths are expected to occur this year, reports the American Cancer Society. About 2,850 cases of hypopharyngeal cancer are expected in 2009.

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
  • hoarseness/voice change
  • 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 conditions or medical problems. Always consult your physician 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 cancer.

Risk factors for laryngeal cancer:

Risk factors include:

  • tobacco use
  • alcohol abuse
  • poor nutrition
  • GERD - gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • human papillomavirus
  • weakened immune system
  • gender - laryngeal cancer is much more common in men than in women
  • age - average age is 62
  • race - more common in African Americans

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)

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