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Laryngeal cancer overview

Published: July 05, 2009. Updated: July 27, 2009

Cancer of the larynx also may be called laryngeal cancer. Cancer can develop in any part of the larynx. Most cancers of the larynx begin in the glottis. The inner walls of the larynx are lined with cells called squamous cells. Almost all laryngeal cancers begin in these cells. These cancers are called squamous cell carcinomas.

If cancer of the larynx spreads (metastasizes), the cancer cells often spread to nearby lymph nodes in the neck. The cancer cells can also spread to the back of the tongue, other parts of the throat and neck, the lungs, and other parts of the body. When this happens, the new tumor has the same kind of abnormal cells as the primary tumor in the larynx. For example, if cancer of the larynx spreads to the lungs, the cancer cells in the lungs are actually laryngeal cancer cells. The disease is called metastatic cancer of the larynx, not lung cancer. It is treated as cancer of the larynx, not lung cancer. Doctors sometimes call the new tumor "distant" disease.

Risk factors for cancer of the larynx

People with certain risk factors are more likely to get cancer of the larynx. A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing this disease.

Studies have found the following risk factors:

  • Age. Cancer of the larynx occurs most often in people over the age of 55.
  • Gender. Men are four times more likely than women to get cancer of the larynx.
  • Race. African Americans are more likely than whites to be diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.
  • Smoking. Smokers are far more likely than nonsmokers to get cancer of the larynx. The risk is even higher for smokers who drink alcohol heavily. People who stop smoking can greatly decrease their risk of cancer of the larynx, as well as cancer of the lung, mouth, pancreas, bladder, and esophagus. Also, quitting smoking reduces the chance that someone with cancer of the larynx will get a second cancer in the head and neck region. (Cancer of the larynx is part of a group of cancers called head and neck cancers.)
  • Alcohol. People who drink alcohol are more likely to develop laryngeal cancer than people who don't drink. The risk increases with the amount of alcohol that is consumed. The risk also increases if the person drinks alcohol and also smokes tobacco.
  • A personal history of head and neck cancer. Almost one in four people who have had head and neck cancer will develop a second primary head and neck cancer.
  • Occupation. Workers exposed to sulfuric acid mist or nickel have an increased risk of laryngeal cancer. Also, working with asbestos can increase the risk of this disease. Asbestos workers should follow work and safety rules to avoid inhaling asbestos fibers.
  • Other studies suggest that having certain viruses or a diet low in vitamin A may increase the chance of getting cancer of the larynx. Another risk factor is having gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), which causes stomach acid to flow up into the esophagus.

However, most people who have these risk factors do not get cancer of the larynx.

Symptoms and signs

The symptoms of cancer of the larynx depend mainly on the size of the tumor and where it is in the larynx. Symptoms may include the following:

  • Hoarseness or other voice changes
  • A lump in the neck
  • A sore throat or feeling that something is stuck in your throat
  • A cough that does not go away
  • Problems breathing
  • Bad breath
  • An earache
  • Weight loss

These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other, less serious problems. Only a doctor can tell for sure.

Diagnosis of laryngeal cancer

If you have symptoms of cancer of the larynx, the doctor may do some or all of the following exams:

  • Physical exam. The doctor will feel your neck and check your thyroid, larynx, and lymph nodes for abnormal lumps or swelling. To see your throat, the doctor may press down on your tongue.
    Indirect laryngoscopy.
  • Direct laryngoscopy. The doctor inserts a thin, lighted tube called a laryngoscope through your nose or mouth. As the tube goes down your throat, the doctor can look at areas that cannot be seen with a mirror. A local anesthetic eases discomfort and prevents gagging. You may also receive a mild sedative to help you relax. Sometimes the doctor uses general anesthesia to put a person to sleep. This exam may be done in a doctor's office, an outpatient clinic, or a hospital.
  • CT scan. An x-ray machine linked to a computer takes a series of detailed pictures of the neck area. You may receive an injection of a special dye so your larynx shows up clearly in the pictures. From the CT scan, the doctor may see tumors in your larynx or elsewhere in your neck.
  • Biopsy. If an exam shows an abnormal area, the doctor may remove a small sample of tissue. Removing tissue to look for cancer cells is called a biopsy. For a biopsy, you receive local or general anesthesia, and the doctor removes tissue samples through a laryngoscope. A pathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. A biopsy is the only sure way to know if a tumor is cancerous.

Staging of laryngeal cancer

  • See staging system for laryngeal cancer

To plan the best treatment, your doctor needs to know the stage, or extent, of your disease. Staging is a careful attempt to learn whether the cancer has spread and, if so, to what parts of the body. The doctor may use x-rays, CT scans, or magnetic resonance imaging to find out whether the cancer has spread to lymph nodes, other areas in your neck, or distant sites.

Treatment of laryngeal cancer

People with cancer of the larynx often want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist who treats cancer of the larynx, such as a surgeon, otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor), radiation oncologist, or medical oncologist. Early stages of this disease may be curable by surgery and or radiotherapy. Late stages usually require chemotherapy

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