Key Points about Laryngeal Cancer

  • Laryngeal cancer begins in your larynx, or voice box.
  • Quitting both smoking and using all tobacco products reduces your risk of developing laryngeal cancer.
  • Doctors use imaging tests, biopsy and physical exams to diagnose laryngeal cancer.
  • Treatment for laryngeal cancer may involve surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

Overview

Laryngeal cancer is cancer that affects the larynx, also known as the voice box, that is located in your throat. The larynx helps you to speak, swallow and breathe. Laryngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

There are three parts of the larynx:

  • Supraglottis - this is the upper part, and about 35% of laryngeal cancers begin here.
  • Glottis - this is the middle part where the vocal cords are located. About 60% of laryngeal cancers begin here.
  • Subglottis - this is the lower part, and only about 5% of laryngeal cancers begin here.

Laryngeal cancer causes

Laryngeal cancer is caused by abnormal cells that develop mutations (changes) and grow out of control. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, can sometimes cause laryngeal cancer.

Laryngeal cancer risk factors

The following factors may increase your risk for developing laryngeal cancer:

  • Being exposed to certain industrial substances, such as sulfuric acid mist, wood dust, asbestos, nickel and manufacturing mustard gas
  • Being male
  • Being over age 55
  • Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Having a personal history of head and neck cancer
  • Having HPV
  • Using any tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco

Laryngeal cancer symptoms

Signs and symptoms of laryngeal cancer can include:

  • Changes in your voice
  • Cough that doesn’t go away
  • Hoarseness
  • Lump in your neck or throat that you can feel
  • Pain in your ear
  • Pain when you swallow
  • Sore throat that doesn’t go away

Laryngeal cancer diagnosis

Your oncologist may use one or more of the following tests to diagnose this condition:

  • Physical exam - your doctor will perform a complete physical exam, including asking questions about your health history, symptoms and related risk factors.
  • Biopsy - in this test, your doctor removes a biopsy (small tissue sample) from your larynx. This sample is sent to the laboratory, where a specialist closely checks the biopsy for abnormalities.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan - your doctor may order a CT scan of your head. This specialized imaging test uses a series of X-ray images to create detailed images of the inside of your body.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan - during this imaging test, your doctor injects a small amount of safe radioactive dye into your vein. This dye helps your doctor see any abnormal areas more clearly on the 3-D images that the scan creates.
  • Ultrasound - your doctor may order an ultrasound, an imaging test that uses sound waves to create detailed images of your head.

Laryngeal cancer treatments

Depending on your personal health history, the extent of your laryngeal cancer and other factors, your oncologist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options:

  • Surgery - typically, the first course of treatment for laryngeal cancer is surgical removal of the cancerous cells. When possible, your surgeon will leave your larynx intact. 
  • Chemotherapy - this treatment involves the use of medications to destroy cancer cells. Chemotherapy drugs can be delivered via a pill taken orally (by mouth) or an intravenous, or IV, liquid (injected into a vein). You may need to undergo chemotherapy after surgery so that your doctor can destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
  • Radiation therapy - this treatment uses high-powered energy beams to destroy cancerous cells. You may need to undergo radiation therapy to destroy any cancerous cells that couldn’t be removed surgically.
  • Immunotherapy - these types of therapies involve using the body’s immune system to fight cancer. 

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing an oncologist for more specialized treatment. 

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