Laryngeal Cancer

The Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention of Laryngeal Cancer

Human larynx cancer, illustration
SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Laryngeal cancer is a type of cancer that affects the larynx - an organ that plays an important role in breathing and communicating. It contains the vocal cords, which give us the sound needed to speak. The larynx is composed of three different parts:

  • Glottis - the part of the larynx that contains the vocal cords
  • Supraglottis - the area above the glottis
  • Subglottis - area below the glottis

Cancer can develop in each of these three areas and are unique from one another.

They each produce different symptoms, require different treatment methods, and vary in prognosis.

Causes of Laryngeal Cancer

About 13,000 people are diagnosed in the United States with laryngeal cancer each year. It affects men much more often than women. This is likely due to the variance of tobacco abuse among the sexes. Men simply use tobacco products more than women and typically do so long term. Thus, smoking remains as the greatest cause of laryngeal cancer.

Heavy alcohol consumption also increases your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. Those who use tobacco products and consume alcohol are at the greatest risk.

Studies have shown a link between those who suffer from GERD and laryngeal cancer. More studies are being done to understand GERD's influence on the development of cancer and what may be done reduce the risk. It is a small risk and not everyone who has GERD will develop laryngeal cancer.

Symptoms of Laryngeal Cancer

One of the most commonly experienced symptoms of laryngeal cancer is persistent hoarseness of the voice. Hoarseness that does not go away after two weeks should be reported to your doctor. Keep in mind that hoarseness is extremely common and much more likely to be caused by something other than laryngeal cancer.

Common culprits of a hoarse voice include smoking, seasonal allergies and laryngitis.

Other symptoms of laryngeal cancer include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Pain or burning sensation when swallowing
  • Sensation of food being stuck in the throat when swallowing
  • Persistent cough that is unrelated to common cold or allergies
  • Lump in the neck
  • Sore throat
  • Earache, although rare
  • Choking on food
  • Halitosis (bad breath)

Tumor size and location are the greatest factors in what symptoms a person may experience. If a tumor develops in the vocal cords, typical symptoms may present with a change in the voice such as hoarseness. When tumors develop above or below the vocal cords, although much less common, different symptoms such as an earache or breathing difficulties may occur.

People with these type of persistent symptoms may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor called an otolaryngologist for further evaluation.

Diagnosing Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer is most often diagnosed when a person seeks medical care for one or more of the above symptoms.

The doctor will first perform a routine physical exam, which he or she will feel the throat area for any lumps or other abnormalities.

To get a better view of the inside of the throat, the doctor may recommend having a laryngoscopy. During this procedure, a thin, fiber-optic scope is fed down the throat, allowing the doctor to see the back of the throat, larynx and vocal cords. During a laryngoscopy, a sample of tissue may be taken if any suspicious areas are discovered. This is called a biopsy and it either confirms or rules out cancer.

If cancer is found, it is then necessary to determine the extent of the cancer. This process is called staging. The doctor will want to see if the cancer has spread to nearby tissue or organs. The stage of laryngeal cancer will affect what treatment method will be recommended for you.

Treatment of Laryngeal Cancer

Several factors are taken into consideration when a treatment plan is developed for someone with laryngeal cancer. Their age and overall general health are important, as well the stage and location of the cancer. Whether or not that cancer has spread plays a large role in determining what treatment method is best.

Surgery and radiation therapy (RT) are standard methods of treatment for laryngeal cancer. Surgery is very common in all stages of laryngeal cancer and in the early stages, can have a curative effect. Surgery can be as simple as user laser therapy to remove cancerous tissue to more aggressive surgical approaches such as a laryngectomy - the removal of the larynx. Radiation therapy is also common with laryngeal cancer. It is given as primary treatment and is sometimes given after surgery to eliminate any remaining cancer cells or to remove cancerous tissue that could not be removed during surgery.

Some people with laryngeal cancer may undergo chemotherapy to treat the disease. It is normally prescribed in conjunction with other treatment methods such as surgery and/or radiation therapy as neoadjuvant or adjuvant therapy. Chemotherapy combined with RT is sometimes recommended in cases where a laryngectomy, which greatly affects quality of life afterward, is the only option. Using chemotherapy to treat laryngeal cancer is is reserved for patients who meet certain criteria.

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