Laryngeal Cancer

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on July 17, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Peter Rudd, MD

What Is Laryngeal Cancer?

Laryngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that affects the larynx. The larynx is your voice box—it contains cartilage and muscles that help you talk.

This type of cancer can damage your voice. When not treated promptly, it may spread to other parts of the body.

According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2012 there will be approximately 3,650 deaths from laryngeal cancer and approximately 12,360 new diagnoses (NCI, 2012).

Survival rates for this cancer depend on its specific location. They also depend on how early it is diagnosed. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 90 percent of people with stage one cancers of the glottis survive for five years or more. The glottis is the part of the larynx that contains the vocal cords. In contrast, only 60 percent of people with stage one cancer of the structures above the glottis (supraglottis) survive for five years or longer (ACS, 2011). The supraglottis contains the epiglottis that closes off the larynx when you swallow. It keeps food from entering your lungs.

Causes of Laryngeal Cancer

Throat cancer occurs when healthy cells are damaged and begin to overgrow. These cells can turn into tumors. Laryngeal cancers are tumors that originate in the voice box.

The mutations that damage cells in the larynx are often caused by smoking. They can also be caused by:

  • heavy alcohol use
  • poor nutrition
  • immune system problems
  • workplace exposure to toxins, such as asbestos
  • certain genetic diseases, such as Fanconi anemia

Risk Factors for Laryngeal Cancer

This type of cancer generally occurs in adults over the age of 50. Men develop throat cancers 10 times more than women. Certain lifestyle factors increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. These include:

  • smoking
  • chewing tobacco
  • eating few fruits and vegetables
  • drinking alcohol
  • exposure to asbestos
  • a family history of throat cancers

Symptoms of Laryngeal Cancer

Unlike other types of cancer, the symptoms of laryngeal cancer are fairly easy for many patients to detect. Some of the most common signs include:

  • hoarse voice
  • breathing difficulties
  • excessive coughing
  • cough with blood
  • neck pain
  • sore throat
  • ear pain
  • trouble swallowing food
  • neck swelling or lumps
  • sudden weight loss

These symptoms are not always associated with cancer. However, you should see a doctor if any of these symptoms last longer than one week. The key to effective cancer treatment is early diagnosis.

Diagnosing Laryngeal Cancer

Diagnosing laryngeal cancer begins with a medical history. If you have potential cancer symptoms, your doctor will examine you carefully and begin a series of tests. The first test performed is usually laryngoscopy. Your doctor will use either a small scope or a series of mirrors to examine your larynx.

If any abnormalities are seen, a biopsy may be taken. This small tissue sample can be used to test for cancer.

Imaging tests are not generally used to diagnose laryngeal cancer. However, tests such as a CT scan or MRI can be used to see if a cancer has spread.

Staging Laryngeal Cancer

If you are diagnosed with cancer, the next step is staging. Staging shows how far the cancer has spread. Oncologists generally use the “TNM system” to stage laryngeal cancer:

  • T: the size of the tumor
  • N: whether the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes
  • M: if the cancer has metastasized. Metastasis means that the cancer has spread to other organs. According to the American Cancer Society, laryngeal cancer most commonly spreads to the lungs (ACS).

Small tumors that have not metastasized or spread to the lymph nodes are the least serious cancers. As the tumors grow, they become more dangerous. Survival greatly decreases once the cancer metastasizes or spreads to the lymph nodes. Such cancers are considered to be more advanced or late stage.

Treating Laryngeal Cancer

Treatment will depend on the extent of your cancer.

Ridding Your Body of Cancer

Radiation therapy or surgery may be used in the earliest stages of treatment. Surgery is commonly first used to remove the tumor. Then, radiation therapy tries to kill any remaining cancer cells. Radiation therapy can also be used alone to treat small cancers.

Chemotherapy is another type of cancer treatment. It can be used:

  • to destroy remaining cancer cells after surgery and radiation
  • along with radiation to treat advanced cancer, when surgery isn’t appropriate
  • alone, to treat symptoms of advanced cancers that cannot be fully removed

Sometimes your doctor will recommend an initial treatment other than surgery. This is usually done when the tumor is small enough to make surgery unnecessary. It may also be done if it is too late for surgery to be fully effective. Either way, the goal is to preserve your quality of life.

More advanced stages of laryngeal cancer often require a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.

Addressing Damage to Your Voice Box

You may lose part or all of your voice box during surgery. However, this does not mean you will no longer be able to speak. Speech therapy can help you learn new ways to communicate. If the whole voice box is removed, other surgery can be used to restore your voice. Your voice will not sound the same. However, most people can regain some ability to talk using:

  • esophageal speech: a therapist teaches you to swallow air and send it back up through the mouth
  • tracheoesophageal puncture (TEP): This surgery creates an easier way to send air from the lungs to the mouth. Your doctor will connect your windpipe and food pipe with something called a stoma. A valve is then placed at the front of your throat. Covering it with your finger helps you talk.
  • electrolarynx: this electrical device is used to create a mechanical voice

Alternative Remedies

During laryngeal cancer treatment you may find alternative remedies helpful, such as:

  • meditation
  • yoga
  • acupuncture
  • massage therapy

Long-Term Outlook

The key to treatment success is to begin treatment as early as possible. Survival is much higher when cancer has not metastasized or spread to the lymph nodes. Laryngeal cancers found early have a survival rate as high as 90 percent.

Complications from cancer surgery are not uncommon. They are more likely if the cancer has had time to spread. Some patients experience:

Lowering Your Risk for Laryngeal Cancer

To reduce your risk of laryngeal cancer, you can make certain lifestyle changes:

  • Reduce or eliminate tobacco use in all forms.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Use proper safety equipment if exposed to asbestos or other toxins at work.
  • Eat a healthy diet.

According to the Mayo Clinic, eating antioxidant-rich foods may also help reduce your cancer risk (Mayo Clinic, 20120).

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