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Laryngeal Cancer (Cancer of the Larynx)

What is Laryngeal Cancer ?

The larynx is located in the neck at the top of the windpipe (trachea) and is used when we talk, swallow and breathe. It's also called the voice box and is made up of cartilage - the large cartilage in the front is often called the Adam's apple. Inside the larynx are the vocal cords.

Cancer of the larynx is a disease in which cancerous (malignant) cells are found in the tissues of the larynx. It is most commonly found in people who smoke. If a person who smokes develops cancer of the larynx, they should stop smoking

Laryngeal cancer is classified by its location:

  • supraglottis (false vocal cords)
  • glottis (true vocal cords)
  • subglottis (rare downward extension from vocal cords).

Laryngeal cancer may spread, either by direct extension to adjacent structures, by metastasis to regional cervical lymph nodes or more distantly, through the blood stream. Distant metastates to the lung are most common.

Causes of Laryngeal Cancer

The cause of laryngeal cancer is unknown. Major risk factors include smoking and alcoholism. Minor risk factors include chronic inhalation of noxious fumes and familial disposition.

Signs & Symptoms of Laryngeal Cancer

The symptoms of laryngeal cancer depend on where the cancer develops. Since it most often develops on the vocal cords, hoarseness or other changes in the voice are common.

Other symptoms that may occur when cancer develops above or below the vocal cords, or if it spreads from the vocal cords, include:

  • abnormal (high-pitched) breathing soundsear pain
  • lump in the neck, especially if it is hard and larger than 2 cm
  • noisy breathing
  • change in voice quality
  • weight loss
  • coughing up blood

If the cancer spreads outside the larynx, the lymph glands in the neck may become enlarged.

Diagnostic Tests

To help find the cause of symptoms, your doctor will evaluate your medical history and will perform a physical exam. During a physical exam, your doctor will check for lumps, swelling, tenderness or other changes. Your doctor may also look inside your larynx, either by an indirect or direct laryngoscopy. Results of the physical exam will determine the need for additional tests. These tests may include:

  • Biopsy
  • Chest X-rays
  • CT (CAT) Scan
  • MRI


Early lesions may respond to laser surgery or radiation therapy; advanced lesions to laser surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

Radiation therapy -when high-energy x-rays are used to kill cancer cells.

Chemotherapy - when drugs are used to kill cancer cells.

Surgery - this may involve the removal of a vocal cord, the supraglottis, part of the larynx or the entire larynx (laryngectomy). Lymph glands may also be removed. For early laryngeal cancers, laser therapy may be used.

A team of experts is involved in caring for a person with laryngeal cancer. This team may include the coordinated expertise of dedicated ear nose and throat (ENT) surgeons (otolaryngologists) and oncologists.

Prevention Tips

Minimize or avoid smoking and excess alcohol use.

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