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.

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."

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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.

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.