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Laryngeal Cancer

Definition Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer is cancer of the larynx or voice box.

Description Laryngeal Cancer

The larynx is located where the throat divides into the esophagus and the trachea. The esophagus is the tube that takes food to the stomach. The trachea, or windpipe, takes air to the lungs. The area where the larynx is located is sometimes called the Adam's apple.

The larynx has two main functions. It contains the vocal cords, cartilage, and small muscles that make up the voice box. When a person speaks, small muscles tighten the vocal cords, narrowing the distance between them. As air is exhaled past the tightened vocal cords, it creates sounds that are formed into speech by the mouth, lips, and tongue.

The second function of the larynx is to allow air to enter the trachea and to keep food, saliva, and foreign material from entering the lungs. A flap of tissue called the epiglottis covers the trachea each time a person swallows. This blocks foreign material from entering the lungs. When not swallowing, the epiglottis retracts, and air flows into the trachea. During treatment for cancer of the larynx, both of these functions may be lost.

Cancers of the larynx develop slowly. About 95% of these cancers develop from thin, flat cells similar to skin cells called squamous epithelial cells. These cells line the larynx. Gradually, the squamous epithelial cells begin to change and are replaced with abnormal cells. These abnormal cells are not cancerous but are pre-malignant cells that have the potential to develop into cancer. This condition is called dysplasia. Most people with dysplasia never develop cancer. The condition simply goes away without any treatment, especially if the person with dysplasia stops smoking or drinking alcohol. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

The larynx is made up of three parts, the glottis, the supraglottis, and the subglottis. Cancer can start in any of these regions. Treatment and survival rates depend on which parts of the larynx are affected and whether the cancer has spread to neighboring areas of the neck or distant parts of the body.

The glottis is the middle part of the larynx. It contains the vocal cords. Cancers that develop on the vocal cords are often diagnosed very early because even small vocal cord tumors cause hoarseness. In addition, the vocal cords have no connection to the lymphatic system. This means that cancers on the vocal cord do not spread easily. When confined to the vocal cords without any involvement of other parts of the larynx, the cure rate for this cancer is 75% to 95%.

The supraglottis is the area above the vocal cords. It contains the epiglottis, which protects the trachea from foreign materials. Cancers that develop in this region are usually not found as early as cancers of the glottis because the symptoms are less distinct. The supraglottis region has many connections to the lymphatic system, so cancers in this region tend to spread easily to the lymph nodes and may spread to other parts of the body (lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body; they produce and store infection-fighting cells). In 25% to 50% of people with cancer in the supraglottal region, the cancer has already spread to the lymph nodes by the time they are diagnosed. Because of this, survival rates are lower than for cancers that involve only the glottis. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

The subglottis is the region below the vocal cords. Cancer starting in the subglottis region is rare. When it does, it is usually detected only after it has spread to the vocal cords, where it causes obvious symptoms such as hoarseness. Because the cancer has already begun to spread by the time it is detected, survival rates are generally lower than for cancers in other parts of the larynx.

About 12,000 new cases of cancer of the larynx develop in the United States each year. Each year, about 3,900 die of the disease. Laryngeal cancer is between four and five times more common in men than in women. Almost all men who develop laryngeal cancer are over age 55. Laryngeal cancer is about 50% more common among African-American men than among other Americans. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

It is thought that older men are more likely to develop laryngeal cancer than women because the two main risk factors for acquiring the disease are lifetime habits of smoking and alcohol abuse. More men are heavy smokers and drinkers than women, and more African-American men are heavy smokers than other men in the United States. However, as smoking becomes more prevalent among women, it seems likely that more cases of laryngeal cancer in females will be seen.

Causes and Symptoms Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer develops when the normal cells lining the larynx are replaced with abnormal cells (dysplasia) that become malignant and reproduce to form tumors. The development of dysplasia is strongly linked to life-long habits of smoking and heavy use of alcohol. The more a person smokes, the greater the risk of developing laryngeal cancer. It is unusual for someone who does not smoke or drink to develop cancer of the larynx. Occasionally, however, people who inhale asbestos particles, wood dust, paint or industrial chemical fumes over a long period of time develop the disease.

The symptoms of laryngeal cancer depend on the location of the tumor. Tumors on the vocal cords are rarely painful, but cause hoarseness. Anyone who is continually hoarse for more than two weeks or who has a cough that does not go away should be checked by a doctor. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Tumors in the supraglottal region above the vocal cords often cause more, but less distinct symptoms. These include:

persistent sore throat

pain when swallowing

difficulty swallowing or frequent choking on food

bad breath

lumps in the neck

persistent ear pain (called referred pain; the source of the pain is not the ear)

change in voice quality

Tumors that begin below the vocal cords are rare, but may cause noisy or difficult breathing. All the symptoms above can also be caused other cancers as well as by less seriousness illnesses. However, if these symptoms persist, it is important to see a doctor and find their cause, because the earlier cancer treatment begins, the more successful it is.

Diagnosis Laryngeal Cancer

On the first visit to a doctor for symptoms that suggest laryngeal cancer, the doctor first takes a complete medical history, including family history of cancer and lifestyle information about smoking and alcohol use. The doctor also does a physical examination, paying special attention to the neck region for lumps, tenderness, or swelling. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

The next step is examination by an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. This doctor also performs a physical examination, but in addition will also want to look inside the throat at the larynx. Initially, the doctor may spray a local anesthetic on the back of the throat to prevent gagging, then use a long-handled mirror to look at the larynx and vocal cords. This examination is done in the doctor's office. It may cause gagging but is usually painless.

A more extensive examination involves a laryngoscopy. In a laryngoscopy, a lighted fiberoptic tube called a laryngoscope that contains a tiny camera is inserted through the patient's nose and mouth and snaked down the throat so that the doctor can see the larynx and surrounding area. This procedure can be done with a sedative and local anesthetic in a doctor's office. More often, the procedure is done in an outpatient surgery clinic or hospital under general anesthesia. This allows the doctor to use tiny clips on the end of the laryngoscope to take biopsies (tissue samples) of any abnormal-looking areas. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Laryngoscopies are normally painless and take about one hour. Some people find their throat feels scratchy after the procedure. Since laryngoscopies are done under sedation, patients should not drive immediately after the procedure, and should have someone available to take them home. Laryngoscopy is a standard procedure that is covered by insurance.

The locations of the samples taken during the laryngoscopy are recorded, and the samples are then sent to the laboratory where they are examined under the microscope by a pathologist who specializes in diagnosing diseases through cell samples and laboratory tests. It may take several days to get the results. Based on the findings of the pathologist, cancer can be diagnosed and staged. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Once cancer is diagnosed, other tests will probably be done to help determine the exact size and location of the tumors. This information is helpful in determining which treatments are most appropriate. These tests may include:

Endoscopy. Similar to a laryngoscopy, this test is done when it appears that cancer may have spread to other areas, such as the esophagus or trachea.

Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. Using x-ray images taken from several angles and computer modeling, CT scans allow parts of the body to be seen as a cross section. This helps locate and size the tumors, and provides information on whether they can be surgically removed.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI uses magnets and radio waves to create more detailed cross-sectional scans than computed tomography. This detailed information is needed if surgery on the larynx area is planned.

Barium swallow. Barium is a substance that, unlike soft tissue, shows up on x rays. Swallowed barium coats the throat and allows x-ray pictures to be made of the tissues lining the throat.

Chest x ray. Done to determine if cancer has spread to the lungs. Since most people with laryngeal cancer are smokers, the risk of also having lung cancer or emphysema is high.

Fine needle aspiration (FNA) biopsy. If any lumps on the neck are found, a thin needle is inserted into the lump, and some cells are removed for analysis by the pathologist.

Additional blood and urine tests. These tests do not diagnose cancer, but help to determine the patient's general health and provide information to determine which cancer treatments are most appropriate.

Treatment Laryngeal Cancer


Once cancer of the larynx is found, more tests will be done to find out if cancer cells have spread to other parts of the body. This is called staging. A doctor needs to know the stage of the disease to plan treatment. In cancer of the larynx, the definitions of the early stages depend on where the cancer started. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)


The cancer is only in the area where it started and has not spread to lymph nodes in the area or to other parts of the body. The exact definition of stage I depends on where the cancer started, as follows:

Supraglottis: The cancer is only in one area of the supraglottis and the vocal cords can move normally.

Glottis: The cancer is only in the vocal cords and the vocal cords can move normally.

Subglottis: The cancer has not spread outside of the subglottis.


The cancer is only in the larynx and has not spread to lymph nodes in the area or to other parts of the body. The exact definition of stage II depends on where the cancer started, as follows:

Supraglottis: The cancer is in more than one area of the supraglottis, but the vocal cords can move normally.

Glottis: The cancer has spread to the supraglottis or the subglottis or both. The vocal cords may or may not be able to move normally.

Subglottis: The cancer has spread to the vocal cords, which may or may not be able to move normally.


Either of the following may be true:

The cancer has not spread outside of the larynx, but the vocal cords cannot move normally, or the cancer has spread to tissues next to the larynx.

The cancer has spread to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the cancer, and the lymph node measures no more than 3 centimeters (just over 1 inch).


Any of the following may be true:

The cancer has spread to tissues around the larynx, such as the pharynx or the tissues in the neck. The lymph nodes in the area may or may not contain cancer.

The cancer has spread to more than one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the cancer, to lymph nodes on one or both sides of the neck, or to any lymph node that measures more than 6 centimeters (over 2 inches).

The cancer has spread to other parts of the body.


Recurrent disease means that the cancer has come back (recurred) after it has been treated. It may come back in the larynx or in another part of the body.

Treatment is based on the stage of the cancer as well as its location and the health of the individual. Generally, there are three types of treatments for cancer of the larynx. These are surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. They can be used alone or in combination based in the stage of the caner. Getting a second opinion after the cancer has been staged can be very helpful in sorting out treatment options and should always be considered.


The goal of surgery is to cut out the tissue that contains malignant cells. There are several common surgeries to treat laryngeal cancer.

Stage III and stage IV cancers are usually treated with total laryngectomy. This is an operation to remove the entire larynx. Sometimes other tissues around the larynx are also removed. Total laryngectomy removes the vocal cords. Alternate methods of voice communication must be learned with the help of a speech pathologist. Laryngectomy is treated in depth as a separate entry in this volume. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Smaller tumors are sometimes treated by partial laryngectomy. The goal is to remove the cancer but save as much of the larynx (and corresponding speech capability) as possible. Very small tumors or cancer in situ are sometimes successfully treated with laser excision surgery. In this type of surgery, a narrowly-targeted beam of light from a laser is used to remove the cancer.

Advanced cancer (Stages III and IV) that has spread to the lymph nodes often requires an operation called a neck dissection. The goal of a neck dissection is to remove the lymph nodes and prevent the cancer from spreading. There are several forms of neck dissection. A radical neck dissection is the operation that removes the most tissue.

Several other operations are sometimes performed because of laryngeal cancer. A tracheotomy is a surgical procedure in which an artificial opening is made in the trachea (windpipe) to allow air into the lungs. This operation is necessary if the larynx is totally removed. A gastrectomy tube is a feeding tube placed through skin and directly into the stomach. It is used to give nutrition to people who cannot swallow or whose esophagus is blocked by a tumor. People who have a total laryngectomy usually do not need a gastrectomy tube if their esophagus remains intact. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)


Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays, such as x rays or gamma rays, to kill cancer cells. The advantage of radiation therapy is that it preserves the larynx and the ability to speak. The disadvantage is that it may not kill all the cancer cells. Radiation therapy can be used alone in early stage cancers or in combination with surgery. Sometimes it is tried first with the plan that if it fails to cure the cancer, surgery still remains an option. Often, radiation therapy is used after surgery for advanced cancers to kill any cells the surgeon might not have removed. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

There are two types of radiation therapy. External beam radiation therapy focuses rays from outside the body on the cancerous tissue. This is the most common type of radiation therapy used to treat laryngeal cancer. With internal radiation therapy, also called brachytherapy, radioactive materials are placed directly on the cancerous tissue. This type of radiation therapy is a much less common treatment for laryngeal cancer.

External radiation therapy is given in doses called fractions. A common treatment involves giving fractions five days a week for seven weeks. Clinical trials are underway to determine the benefits of accelerating the delivery of fractions (accelerated fractionation) or dividing fractions into smaller doses given more than once a day (hyperfractionation). Side effects of radiation therapy include dry mouth, sore throat, hoarseness, skin problems, trouble swallowing, and diminished ability to taste. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Unlike radiation therapy, which is targeted to a specific tissue, chemotherapy drugs are either taken by mouth or intravenously (through a vein) and circulate throughout the whole body. They are used mainly to treat advanced laryngeal cancer that is inoperable or that has metastasized to a distant site. Chemotherapy is often used after surgery or in combination with radiation therapy. Clinical trials are underway to determine the best combination of treatments for advanced cancer.

The two most common chemotherapy drugs used to treat laryngeal cancer are cisplatin and 5-fluorouracil (5-FU). There are many side effects associated with chemotherapy drugs, including nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite, hair loss, diarrhea, and mouth sores. Chemotherapy can also damage the blood-producing cells of the bone marrow, which can result in low blood cell counts, increased chance of infection, and abnormal bleeding or bruising. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Alternative treatment Laryngeal Cancer

Alternative and complementary therapies range from herbal remedies, vitamin supplements, and special diets to spiritual practices, acupuncture, massage, and similar treatments. When these therapies are used in addition to conventional medicine, they are called complementary therapies. When they are used instead of conventional medicine, they are called alternative therapies.

Complementary or alternative therapies are widely used by people with cancer. One large study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in July, 2000 found that 83% of all cancer patients studied used some form of complementary or alternative medicine as part of their cancer treatment. No specific alternative therapies have been directed toward laryngeal cancer. However, good nutrition and activities that reduce stress and promote a positive view of life have no unwanted side-effects and appear to be beneficial in boosting the immune system in fighting cancer.

Unlike traditional pharmaceuticals, complementary and alternative therapies are not evaluated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for either safety or effectiveness. These therapies may have interactions with traditional pharmaceuticals. Patients should be wary of "miracle cures" and notify their doctors if they are using herbal remedies, vitamin supplements or other unprescribed treatments. Alternative and experimental treatments normally are not covered by insurance. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Prognosis treatment Laryngeal Cancer

Cure rates and survival rates can predict group outcomes, but can never precisely predict the outcome for a single individual. However, the earlier laryngeal cancer is discovered and treated, the more likely it will be cured.

Cancers found in stage 0 and stage 1 have a 75% to 95% cure rate depending on the site. Late stage cancers that have metastasized have a very poor survival rate, with intermediate stages falling somewhere in between. People who have had laryngeal cancer are at greatest risk for recurrence (having cancer come back), especially in the head and neck, during the first two to three years after treatment. Check-ups during the first year are needed every other month, and four times a year during the second year. It is rare for laryngeal cancer to recur after five years of being cancer-free. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Prevention treatment Laryngeal Cancer

By far, the most effective way to prevent laryngeal cancer is not to smoke. Smokers who quit smoking also significantly decrease their risk of developing the disease. Other ways to prevent laryngeal cancer include limiting the use of alcohol, eating a well-balanced diet, seeking treatment for prolonged heartburn, and avoiding inhaling asbestos and chemical fumes. (Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Key Terms

The abnormal change in size, shape or organization of adult cells.

Clear, slightly yellow fluid carried by a network of thin tubes to every part of the body. Cells that fight infection are carried in the lymph.

Lymphatic system
Primary defense against infection in the body. The lymphatic system consists of tissues, organs, and channels (similar to veins) that produce, store, and transport lymph and white blood cells to fight infection.

Lymph nodes
Small, bean-shaped collections of tissue found in a lymph vessel. They produce cells and proteins that fight infection, and also filter lymph. Nodes are sometimes called lymph glands.

Spread of cells from the original site of the cancer to other parts of the body where secondary tumors are formed.

Cancerous. Cells tend to reproduce without normal controls on growth and form tumors or invade other tissues.
(Cancer Laryngeal Symptom, Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer, Treatment Laryngeal Cancer)

Laryngeal Cancer | Cancer Laryngeal Symptom | Pathophysiology Laryngeal Cancer | Treatment Laryngeal Cancer