Laryngeal cancer is a disease in which cancer cells grow in the larynx. The larynx is a tube-shaped organ inside the neck that lies between the throat and the windpipe. Its main function is to produce sound for speaking. Cancer occurs when cells in the body (in this case laryngeal cells) divide without control or order. Normally, cells divide in a regulated manner. If cells keep dividing uncontrollably when new cells are not needed, a mass of tissue forms, called a growth or tumor. The term cancer refers to malignant tumors, which can invade nearby tissues and can spread to other parts of the body.
The cause of laryngeal cancer is unknown. Risk factors include smoking (the most common high-risk behavior), excessive use of alcohol, black race, age 55 or older, male gender, occupational exposure to certain air pollutants such as wood dust, chemicals, and asbestos, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) – stomach acid that backs up into the esophagus and throat where it may come in contact with the larynx, weakened immune system, and/or laryngeal dysplasia (a precancerous condition).
Symptoms may include persistent cough, hoarseness, or sore throat, an abnormal lump in the throat or neck, difficulty swallowing, pain when swallowing, frequent choking on food, difficulty breathing, noisy breathing, persistent ear pain or an unusual ear fullness or sensation in and around the skin of the ear, unplanned, significant weight loss, and/or persistent bad breath. These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious health conditions. If you are experiencing these symptoms, see your healthcare provider.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Tests may include laryngoscopy (a thin, lighted tube inserted down the throat to examine the larynx), biopsy (removal of a sample of laryngeal tissue to test for cancer cells), chest x-ray (a test that uses radiation to take a picture of the larynx and nearby structures), CT scan (a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of the inside of the larynx), and/or MRI scan (a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of the inside of the larynx).
Once laryngeal cancer is found, staging tests are performed to find out if the cancer has spread and, if so, to what extent. Treatment depends on the stage of the cancer. For early stage laryngeal cancer, either surgery or radiation alone is the most common and appropriate therapies offered. For more advanced disease, either radiation (with chemotherapy) or surgery followed by radiation is the most common treatment given. Surgery requires removal of a cancerous tumor and nearby tissue, and possibly nearby lymph nodes. Surgeries for laryngeal cancer include total laryngectomy (removal of the larynx, including the vocal cords), partial laryngectomy (removal of the cancerous tissue while leaving as much of the vocal cords as possible), tracheotomy, and/or neck dissection (removal of the lymph nodes and part of the neck muscles). Radiation therapy is the use of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors, generally in the form of external radiation therapy. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. This form of treatment may be given in many forms including pill, injection, and catheter. The drugs enter the bloodstream and travel through the body killing mostly cancer cells, but also some healthy cells. Chemotherapy may be used to reduce the size of a particularly large cancer.
Since laryngeal cancer is extremely rare in nonsmokers, the best way to prevent this type of cancer is by not smoking. Other measures you can take to reduce your risk of laryngeal cancer include avoiding excessive alcohol use, and protecting yourself from toxic exposures that have been linked to laryngeal cancer.