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What is Laryngeal Cancer?

The Larynx

The larynx (voice box) is located just below the pharynx (throat) in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords, which vibrate and make sound when air is directed against them. The sound echoes through the pharynx, mouth, and nose to make a person's voice.

Laryngeal Cancers

Most laryngeal cancers form in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the larynx. Most squamous cell cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx begin as pre-cancerous conditions called dysplasia. Most of the time, dysplasia doesn't turn into actual cancer. Although, some cases of dysplasia will progress into a condition called carcinoma in situ (CIS).

In CIS, the cancer cells are only seen in the uppermost layer lining the larynx. They have not grown into deeper areas of the tissue or spread to other parts of the body. CIS is the earliest form of cancer. Most of these early cancers can be cured.

Some areas of the larynx have tiny glands beneath their lining layer, known as minor salivary glands. These glands produce mucus and saliva to lubricate and moisten the area. Cancer rarely develops from the cells of these glands, but when it does, they are called Adenocarcinoma, Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma and Mucoepidermoid Carcinoma.

These cancers are distinguished from squamous cell cancer and from one another by the kinds of cells they are made of and by the way these cells are arranged.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that affects your chance of getting a disease like cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors.

Following are the most common risk factors associated with laryngeal cancer:

  • Use of tobacco products
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Poor nutrition and vitamin deficiencies
  • Workplace exposure to wood dust, paint fumes, and certain chemicals used in the metalworking, petroleum, plastics, and textile industries
  • Male patients over the age of 65

Signs and Symptoms

Following are the most common symptoms of laryngeal cancer:

  • A sore throat or cough that does not go away
  • Trouble or pain when swallowing
  • Ear pain
  • A lump in the neck or throat
  • A change or hoarseness in the voice

Diagnosis and Staging

If a patient has symptoms that could be laryngeal cancer, the doctor will test for fever and high blood pressure and check general signs of health. The patient will likely have one or more of the following tests:

  • Physical Exam - An examination in which the doctor feels for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas. 
  • Laryngoscopy - A procedure in which the doctor examines the larynx (voice box) with a mirror or with a laryngoscope (a thin, lighted tube). 
  • Endoscopy - A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth. Tissue samples and lymph nodes may be taken for biopsy. 
  • Panendoscopy - A procedure that combines laryngoscopy, esophagoscopy, and (at times) bronchoscopy. This allows the doctor to thoroughly examine the entire area containing the larynx and hypopharynx, including the esophagus and trachea (windpipe). The doctor will look at these areas through the scope to find any tumor, see how large it is, and see how far it may have spread to surrounding areas. 
  • CT Scan - A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly.
  • MRI - A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI). 
  • PET Scan - A radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into the vein. Cancers use glucose at a higher rate than normal tissues, so radioactivity will concentrate in the cancer. A scanner can spot the radioactive deposits. This test can be helpful for spotting small collections of cancer cells. It may also help tell if a tumor is benign or malignant. 
  • Biopsy - The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. 
  • Barium Swallow - A series of x-rays of the esophagus and stomach. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus and stomach, and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called an Upper GI Series. 

Learn About Stages of Laryngeal Cancer

Treatment and Side Effects Management

In all cases, treatment should be individualized by you. You do not have to rush to make a decision, so consider options carefully. Research shows that cancer survivors of all educational levels and backgrounds can have a hard time communicating with their healthcare team. One of the best ways to improve communication with your health care team is to prepare your visits so that you can make the best of your time.

A treatment plan is a way to deal with both the short and long term goals of managing your cancer. There are different treatment methods. Patients have time for second opinions and to talk through all of their options with their doctors and develop a treatment plan that best fits their needs.

Social networking and online support groups are important tools. Reaching out to others who have or have had similar experiences can provide you with valuable insights. Please click online community for more information on clinically facilitated support online through the Cancer Support Community.

Learn More About Treatment & Side Effects Management