Skip to Main Content

Larynx Cancer


Larynx cancer, also called laryngeal cancer, occurs when malignant cells form in the tissues of the larynx. Many cancers of the larynx, which is part of the respiratory tract, begin in the vocal cords.

Our Approach to Larynx Cancer

UCSF offers cutting-edge diagnostic and treatment options for larynx cancer, delivered in a comfortable and supportive environment. Our goal is to eliminate the cancer while preserving speech and swallowing functions as much as possible.

To achieve the best outcome for each patient, our team includes a wide range of specialists. These include head and neck surgeons, otolaryngologists, medical oncologists, reconstructive surgeons and radiation oncologists, as well as experts in speech-language pathology, nutrition and psycho-oncology, which focuses on psychological factors affecting cancer patients.

Awards & recognition

  • usnews-neurology

    Among the top hospitals in the nation

  • Best in Northern California and No. 7 in the nation for cancer care

  • n7-2x

    One of the nation's best for ear, nose & throat care

  • NIH-2x

    Designated comprehensive cancer center

Signs & symptoms

The symptoms of cancer of the larynx depend mainly on the size and location of the tumor.

  • Most cancers of the larynx begin on the vocal cords. These tumors are seldom painful, but they almost always cause hoarseness or other changes in the voice.
  • Tumors in the area above the vocal cords may cause a lump on the neck, a sore throat or an earache.
  • Tumors that begin in the area below the vocal cords are rare and can make it hard to breathe. Your breathing may become noisy.

A cough that doesn't go away or the feeling of a lump in the throat may also be warning signs of cancer of the larynx. As the tumor grows, it may cause pain, weight loss, bad breath, and choking on food. In some cases, a tumor in the larynx can make it hard to swallow.


In addition to checking general signs of health, your doctor will carefully feel your neck to check for lumps, swelling, tenderness or other changes. Your doctor also can look at the larynx in two ways:

  • Indirect Laryngoscopy Your doctor looks down your throat with a small, long-handled mirror, or through the nose with a flexible telescope, to check for abnormal areas and to see if the vocal cords move as they should. This test is performed in the doctor's office and is painless, but a local anesthetic may be sprayed in the throat or nose to avoid discomfort and prevent gagging.
  • Direct Laryngoscopy Your doctor inserts a lighted tube, called a laryngoscope, through your mouth. As the tube goes down the throat, your doctor can look at areas that cannot be seen in the office. This procedure is done in the operating room with use of a general anesthetic to put you to "sleep."

If abnormal areas are found, you will need a biopsy. A biopsy is the only sure way to know if cancer is present. A pathologist examines the tissue under a microscope to check for cancer cells. If cancer is found, the pathologist can determine its type. Almost all cancers of the larynx are squamous cell carcinomas. This cancer begins in the flat, scale-like cells that line parts of the larynx.

Imaging such as computed tomography (CT) scan and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are used to determine the extent of the tumor and the status of lymph nodes in the neck.


Cancer of the larynx is usually treated with surgery or radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy. Some patients may receive chemotherapy at the time of radiation therapy.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to damage cancer cells and stop them from growing. The rays are aimed at the tumor and the surrounding area. Doctors may suggest this type of treatment for some cancers because it can destroy the tumor and you may not lose your voice.

Radiation therapy may be combined with surgery to destroy microscopic cancer cells that may remain in the area after surgery. Radiation therapy also may be used for tumors that cannot be removed with surgery.


Surgery may be recommended as primary treatment for some tumors, thus avoiding radiation. Surgery followed by radiation is suggested for some patients with advanced cancers. Surgery is the usual treatment if a tumor does not respond to radiation therapy or grows back after radiation therapy.

When patients need surgery, the type of operation depends mainly on the size and exact location of the tumor. If a tumor on the vocal cord is very small, the surgeon may use a laser, a powerful beam of light, to remove the tumor. Surgery to remove part or the entire larynx is called a partial or total laryngectomy.

The surgeon may perform a tracheostomy, creating an opening called a stoma in the front of the neck, which may be temporary or permanent. Air enters and leaves the trachea and lungs through this opening. A tracheostomy tube, sometimes called a "trach tube," keeps the new airway open.

A partial laryngectomy preserves the voice. The surgeon removes only part of the voice box — just one vocal cord, part of a cord or just the epiglottis, cartilage that projects upward behind the tongue. In these cases, the tracheostomy is temporary. After a brief recovery period, the trach tube is removed and the opening closes.

In a total laryngectomy, the whole voice box is removed and the stoma or opening is permanent. The patient breathes through the stoma and must learn to talk in a new way.

If your doctor thinks the cancer may have spread, the lymph nodes in the neck and some of the tissue around them may be removed. These nodes are often the first place the laryngeal cancer spreads.


Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells. Your doctor may suggest one drug or a combination of drugs. In some cases, anticancer drugs are given during radiation therapy. Chemotherapy also may be used for cancers that have spread elsewhere in the body.

UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.

Recommended reading

FAQ: Cancer Pathology Tissue Slides

Find frequently asked questions regarding cancer pathology tissue slides, such as how to obtain the slides and what to do with them once you do.

FAQ: Cancer Radiology Scans and Reports

Learn the difference between a radiology report and radiology films or scans as well as why your doctor may be requesting these scans and more.

Self-Care for Caregivers

Caregiver fatigue can be brought on by the physical and emotional demands of caring for a loved one with a serious illness. Learn tips to combat caregiver fatigue here.

Communicating with Your Doctor

The relationship with a doctor is a very personal one, built on communication and trust. In choosing a doctor, the "chemistry" between the two of you must work.

Coping with Chemotherapy

Each person experiences side effects from chemotherapy differently, and different chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects. Learn more here.

Delegation to Help with Fatigue

Fatigue caused by cancer treatment can make it difficult to accomplish even the smallest of tasks. Learn how task delegation can help with this fatigue.

Nutrition Plans for Cancer Patients Undergoing Treatment

Discover nutrition plans to follow during your cancer treatment. Manage side effects of chemotherapy, like nausea and vomiting, through nutrition.

Managing Your Treatment

Living with or caring for someone with cancer can be a full-time job. Here are some tips to reduce stress and help navigate the disease more effectively.

Nutrition and Coping with Cancer Symptoms

Side effects of cancer treatment may affect your eating pattern, requiring new ways to get the calories, protein and nutrients that you need. Learn more.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Your time with the doctor is limited, thus it's helpful to prepare for the visit in advance by prioritizing the questions that are important to you. Learn more.

Resources for End of Life

The UCSF Cancer Resource Center has a list of bereavement support groups, counselors, hospice and others dealing with end-of-life issues. Learn more.

Tips for Conserving Your Energy

Cancer and cancer therapy can be accompanied by feelings of extreme fatigue. To help you deal with this fatigue, follow these easy tips help conserve energy.

Using a Medical Calendar and Symptom Log

Take time at the end of each day or each week to reflect back on the symptoms you've had. You can use a calendar to track your symptoms. Learn more here.

Where to get care (3)

    Related clinics (4)


    Cancer Symptom Management

    Cancer Symptom Management

    San Francisco

    Osher Center for Integrative Health

    Osher Center for Integrative Health

    1545 Divisadero St., Fourth Floor
    San Francisco, CA 94115


    Cancer Survivorship and Wellness Institute

    Cancer Survivorship and Wellness Institute

    See both of our San Francisco locations.




    San Francisco

    Support services

    Support Group

    Art for Recovery

    Creativity can help people with serious illnesses cope, heal and express what they're going through. Find out about our program and how to join.


    Cancer Exercise Counseling

    Our one-on-one exercise training sessions, customized for your needs and abilities, can complement other cancer treatments and speed your recovery.

    Patient Resource

    Cancer Nutrition Counseling

    UCSF Health offers free nutrition counseling to our patients with cancer, as well as nutrition seminars that are open to anyone. Learn more.

    Support Group

    Cancer Support Groups

    These groups offered by the Ida and Joseph Friend Patient and Family Cancer Support Center are free and available to all patients, whether or not you get your health care at UCSF.


    Core & More Class for Cancer Patients

    A strong body helps you fight cancer and enjoy life. Join this class to stabilize your core, strengthen your muscles and improve overall fitness. For cancer patients and caregivers!

    Patient Resource

    Friend to Friend Specialty Shops

    A one-stop boutique for patients with cancer. Get professional help with wigs, prostheses, sun-protective clothing, makeup, skin care and more.


    Meditation & Guided Imagery for Cancer Patients

    Drop in for a free class designed to help you heal, relax and find balance during your treatment. UCSF and non-UCSF patients are welcome.

    Patient Resource

    Oncology Social Work

    Social workers offer support, problem-solving, help accessing UCSF cancer-related resources and more. Find out how to contact the social worker for your clinic.

    Patient Resource

    Patient & Family Cancer Support Center

    The center offers wellness programming, community, support groups, classes, workshops and more at no cost to people facing cancer and their loved ones.

    Support Group

    Peer Support Programs for Cancer

    Patients are matched with peer support volunteers according to criteria such as diagnosis, cancer stage, age or gender. Speak to someone who's "been there."