Summary

Key Points

  • Laryngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the larynx.
  • Use of tobacco products and drinking too much alcohol can affect the risk of laryngeal cancer.
  • Signs and symptoms of laryngeal cancer include a sore throat and ear pain.
  • Tests that examine the throat and neck are used to help detect (find), diagnose, and stage laryngeal cancer.
  • Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Laryngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the larynx.

The larynx is a part of the throat, between the base of the tongue and the trachea. 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.

There are three main parts of the larynx:

  • Supraglottis: The upper part of the larynx above the vocal cords, including the epiglottis.
  • Glottis: The middle part of the larynx where the vocal cords are located.
  • Subglottis: The lower part of the larynx between the vocal cords and the trachea (windpipe).

Most laryngeal cancers form in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the larynx.

Laryngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.

Risk Factors

Use of tobacco products and drinking too much alcohol can affect the risk of laryngeal cancer.

Anything that increases your risk of getting a disease is called a risk factor. Having a risk factor does not mean that you will get cancer; not having risk factors doesn't mean that you will not get cancer. Talk with your doctor if you think you may be at risk.

Screening and Detection

Tests that examine the throat and neck are used to help detect (find), diagnose, and stage laryngeal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam of the throat and neck: An exam to check the throat and neck for abnormal areas. The doctor will feel the inside of the mouth with a gloved finger and examine the mouth and throat with a small long-handled mirror and light. This will include checking the insides of the cheeks and lips; the gums; the back, roof, and floor of the mouth; the top, bottom, and sides of the tongue; and the throat. The neck will be felt for swollen lymph nodes. A history of the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and medical treatments will also be taken.
  • Biopsy : The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope by a pathologist to check for signs of cancer. The sample of tissue may be removed during one of the following procedures:


    • Laryngoscopy : A procedure to look at the larynx (voice box) for abnormal areas. A mirror or a laryngoscope (a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted through the mouth to see the larynx. A special tool on the laryngoscope may be used to remove samples of tissue.
    • Endoscopy : A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body, such as the throat, esophagus, and trachea to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube with a light and a lens for viewing) is inserted through an opening in the body, such as the mouth. A special tool on the endoscope may be used to remove samples of tissue.
  • CT scan (CAT 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. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): 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 (positron emission tomography scan): A procedure to find malignant tumor cells in the body. A small amount of radioactive glucose (sugar) is injected into a vein. The PET scanner rotates around the body and makes a picture of where glucose is being used in the body. Malignant tumor cells show up brighter in the picture because they are more active and take up more glucose than normal cells do.
  • Bone scan : A procedure to check if there are rapidly dividing cells, such as cancer cells, in the bone. A very small amount of radioactive material is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream. The radioactive material collects in the bones and is detected by a scanner.
  • 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.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of laryngeal cancer include a sore throat and ear pain.

These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by laryngeal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • 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.

Treatment Options

There are different types of treatment for patients with laryngeal cancer.

Different types of treatment are available for patients with laryngeal cancer. Some treatments are standard (the currently used treatment), and some are being tested in clinical trials. A treatment clinical trial is a research study meant to help improve current treatments or obtain information on new treatments for patients with cancer. When clinical trials show that a new treatment is better than the standard treatment, the new treatment may become the standard treatment. Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Three types of standard treatment are used:

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is a cancer treatment that uses high-energy x-rays or other types of radiation to kill cancer cells. There are two types of radiation therapy. External radiation therapy uses a machine outside the body to send radiation toward the cancer. Internal radiation therapy uses a radioactive substance sealed in needles, seeds, wires, or catheters that are placed directly into or near the cancer. The way the radiation therapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

Radiation therapy may work better in patients who have stopped smoking before beginning treatment. External radiation therapy to the thyroid or the pituitary gland may change the way the thyroid gland works. The doctor may test the thyroid gland before and after therapy to make sure it is working properly.

Hyperfractionated radiation therapy and new types of radiation therapy are being studied in the treatment of laryngeal cancer.

Surgery

Surgery (removing the cancer in an operation) is a common treatment for all stages of laryngeal cancer. The following surgical procedures may be used:

  • Cordectomy: Surgery to remove the vocal cords only.
  • Supraglottic laryngectomy: Surgery to remove the supraglottis only.
  • Hemilaryngectomy: Surgery to remove half of the larynx (voice box). A hemilaryngectomy saves the voice.
  • Partial laryngectomy: Surgery to remove part of the larynx (voice box). A partial laryngectomy helps keep the patient's ability to talk.
  • Total laryngectomy: Surgery to remove the whole larynx. During this operation, a hole is made in the front of the neck to allow the patient to breathe. This is called a tracheostomy.
  • Thyroidectomy: The removal of all or part of the thyroid gland.
  • Laser surgery: A surgical procedure that uses a laser beam (a narrow beam of intense light) as a knife to make bloodless cuts in tissue or to remove a surface lesion such as a tumor.

Even if the doctor removes all the cancer that can be seen at the time of the surgery, some patients may be given chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to kill any cancer cells that are left. Treatment given after the surgery, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back, is called adjuvant therapy.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping the cells from dividing. When chemotherapy is taken by mouth or injected into a vein or muscle, the drugs enter the bloodstream and can reach cancer cells throughout the body (systemic chemotherapy). When chemotherapy is placed directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, an organ, or a body cavity such as the abdomen, the drugs mainly affect cancer cells in those areas (regional chemotherapy). The way the chemotherapy is given depends on the type and stage of the cancer being treated.

See Drugs Approved for Head and Neck Cancer for more information. (Laryngeal cancer is a type of head and neck cancer.)

New types of treatment are being tested in clinical trials.

This summary section describes treatments that are being studied in clinical trials. It may not mention every new treatment being studied. Information about clinical trials is available from the NCI Web site.

Chemoprevention

Chemoprevention is the use of drugs, vitamins, or other substances to reduce the risk of developing cancer or to reduce the risk cancer will recur (come back). The drug isotretinoin is being studied to prevent the development of a second cancer in patients who have had cancer of the head or neck.

Radiosensitizers

Radiosensitizers are drugs that make tumor cells more sensitive to radiation therapy. Combining radiation therapy with radiosensitizers may kill more tumor cells.

Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.

For some patients, taking part in a clinical trial may be the best treatment choice. Clinical trials are part of the cancer research process. Clinical trials are done to find out if new cancer treatments are safe and effective or better than the standard treatment.

Many of today's standard treatments for cancer are based on earlier clinical trials. Patients who take part in a clinical trial may receive the standard treatment or be among the first to receive a new treatment.

Patients who take part in clinical trials also help improve the way cancer will be treated in the future. Even when clinical trials do not lead to effective new treatments, they often answer important questions and help move research forward.

Patients can enter clinical trials before, during, or after starting their cancer treatment.

Some clinical trials only include patients who have not yet received treatment. Other trials test treatments for patients whose cancer has not gotten better. There are also clinical trials that test new ways to stop cancer from recurring (coming back) or reduce the side effects of cancer treatment.

Clinical trials are taking place in many parts of the country. See the Treatment Options section that follows for links to current treatment clinical trials. These have been retrieved from NCI's listing of clinical trials.

Follow-up tests may be needed.

Some of the tests that were done to diagnose the cancer or to find out the stage of the cancer may be repeated. Some tests will be repeated in order to see how well the treatment is working. Decisions about whether to continue, change, or stop treatment may be based on the results of these tests.

Some of the tests will continue to be done from time to time after treatment has ended. The results of these tests can show if your condition has changed or if the cancer has recurred (come back). These tests are sometimes called follow-up tests or check-ups.

Last Updated: 2015-05-18

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