Laryngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that affects the larynx. The larynx is your voice box. It contains cartilage and muscles that enable you to 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, head and neck cancers account for 3 percent of all cancers in the United States. Survival rates for this cancer depend on its specific location and how early it’s diagnosed. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), 90 percent of people with stage 1 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, 59 percent of people with stage 1 cancer of the structures above the glottis, or supraglottis, survive for five years or longer. The supraglottis contains the epiglottis, which closes off the larynx when you swallow. It keeps food from entering your lungs.
Unlike other types of cancer, the symptoms of laryngeal cancer are fairly easy for many people to detect. Some of the most common signs include:
- a hoarse voice
- breathing difficulties
- excessive coughing
- a cough with blood
- neck pain
- sore throat
- ear pain
- trouble swallowing food
- neck swelling
- neck lumps
- sudden weight loss
These symptoms don’t always occur 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 an early diagnosis.
Throat cancer typically occurs when healthy cells sustain damage 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 due to smoking. They can also be the result of:
- heavy alcohol use
- poor nutrition
- human papilloma virus (HPV) exposure
- immune system problems
- workplace exposure to toxins, such as asbestos
- certain genetic diseases, such as Fanconi anemia
Certain lifestyle factors increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. These include:
- chewing tobacco
- not eating enough fruits and vegetables
- consuming large quantities of processed foods
- drinking alcohol
- exposure to asbestos
- a family history of throat 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 a laryngoscopy. Your doctor will use either a small scope or a series of mirrors to examine your larynx.
If your doctor sees any abnormalities, they may perform a biopsy. A laboratory can test this small tissue sample for cancer.
Imaging tests aren’t a common method to diagnose laryngeal cancer. However, tests such as a CT scan or MRI can help your doctor to see if a cancer has spread.
If you receive a cancer diagnosis, the next step is staging. Staging shows how far the cancer has spread. Oncologists generally use the TNM system to stage laryngeal cancer:
- The “T” value indicates the size of the tumor.
- “N” refers to whether the tumor has spread to the lymph nodes.
- “M” indicates whether 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.
Small tumors that haven’t metastasized or spread to the lymph nodes are the least serious cancers. As the tumors grow, they become more dangerous. Survival rates greatly decrease once the cancer metastasizes or spreads to the lymph nodes. Such cancers are more advanced or late stage.
Treatment will depend on the extent of your cancer.
Your doctor may use radiation therapy or surgery in the earliest stages of treatment. Surgery is a common method to remove the tumor. Then, radiation therapy tries to kill any remaining cancer cells. Your doctor may prescribe radiation therapy alone to treat small cancers.
Chemotherapy is another type of cancer treatment. It can:
- destroy remaining cancer cells after surgery and radiation
- treat advanced cancer along with radiation when surgery isn’t appropriate
- treat symptoms of advanced cancers that can’t be fully removed
Your doctor might recommend an initial treatment other than surgery. This usually happens when the tumor is small enough to make surgery unnecessary. It may also occur if it’s 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 doesn’t mean you’ll no longer be able to speak. Speech therapy can help you learn new ways to communicate. If your doctor removes the whole voice box, other surgery can restore your voice. Your voice won’t sound the same. However, most people can regain some ability to talk using a number of procedures.
Esophageal speech is a method in which a therapist teaches you to swallow air and send it back up through the mouth.
A tracheoesophageal puncture (TEP) 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. They then place a valve at the front of your throat. Covering the valve with your finger helps you talk.
An electrolarynx is an electrical device that creates a mechanical voice.
During laryngeal cancer treatment you may find alternative remedies helpful, such as:
- massage therapy
To reduce your risk of laryngeal cancer, you can make certain lifestyle changes:
- If you smoke, reduce or eliminate tobacco use in all forms.
- If you’re going to drink alcohol, do so 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.
The key to treatment success is to begin treatment as early as possible. Survival rates are much higher when cancer hasn’t metastasized or spread to the lymph nodes.
Risks from cancer surgery aren’t uncommon. They’re more likely to occur if the cancer has had time to spread. Some people experience:
- difficulty breathing
- difficulty swallowing
- neck disfigurement
- a loss or change of voice
- permanent neck scars