Laryngeal cancer is cancer of the larynx, an organ in the front of the neck between the esophagus and the trachea (sometimes called the voice box). The larynx assists in breathing, speaking, and even swallowing. When the cells that make up the tissue of the larynx begin to multiply and divide at an unusual rate it is called laryngeal cancer. The cells also grow abnormally large, usually forming a mass called a tumor. The tumor can displace and interfere with other organs surrounding the larynx and spread to other parts of the body.
How Does Laryngeal Cancer Spread?
When cancer spreads to other parts of the body it is called metastasis. Cancer cells can actually enter the bloodstream or lymphatic system and be carried to other organs in the body. However, the most likely place for laryngeal cancer to spread is to lymph nodes in the neck. From there it can spread to the back of the tongue, other portions of the neck and into the lungs. If left untreated it can spread throughout the entire body.
Risk Factors For Laryngeal Cancer
Laryngeal cancer cannot always be prevented, however certain risk factors which make you more likely to get laryngeal cancer have been identified including:
- 55 years of age or older
- male gender
- drinking alcohol
- having had a previous diagnosis of cancer in the head or neck
- exposure to certain chemicals including asbestos, sulfuric acid or nickel
- suffering from GERD (acid reflux)
- HPV infection
Just because you have some of these factors does not necessarily mean that you will develop laryngeal cancer.
Symptoms of Laryngeal Cancer
The following symptoms of laryngeal cancer can also be associated with many other illnesses. It is important to visit your doctor to determine the cause of your symptoms. You may also want to visit our symptom checker to find out what other conditions could be causing your illness. Some possible symptoms are:
Diagnosing Laryngeal Cancer
There are multiple tests used to diagnose laryngeal cancer. If you have symptoms of laryngeal cancer your doctor will likely conduct a physical exam. He will feel your neck for any lumps and look in the back of your throat. If necessary, other tests will be ordered and may include:
- Laryngoscopy - Indirect laryngoscopy can be preformed in your doctor's office. Your physician will put a mirror with a very long handle down your throat to visualize the vocal cords and surrounding tissues. You may receive an anesthetic spray that numbs the back of your throat and keeps you from gagging. A direct laryngoscopy requires sedation to make you more comfortable so it is more likely to be performed in a surgical center or hospital. The doctor will use a laryngoscope (a tube with a light on the end which is inserted through your nose or your mouth) to visualize the larynx.
- CT Scan
Treating Laryngeal Cancer
Treating laryngeal cancer may involve multiple medical experts including otlaryngologists, surgeons, oncologists, and radiation oncologists. The exact method of treatment will depend on your particular situation but often will involve surgery to remove as much of the cancer as possible. Local radiation of the cancer cells may be preformed before surgery in an effort to reduce the size of the tumor or after surgery to eradicate as many cancer cells as possible. Chemotherapy is used in some cases of laryngeal cancer.
Long-Term Impact of Laryngeal Cancer
Depending on the stage of your cancer you may need a surgery called a partial laryngectomy or total laryngectomy, which involves a tracheostomy. Sometimes the tracheostomy is temporary but sometimes it is permanent. Perhaps one of the most devastating side effects of laryngeal cancer is its effects on speech. If you have a permanent tracheostomy, you will have to learn how to speak in a new way. You will have lessons from a speech pathologist to help you learn to talk. In the meantime, keep a pencil and a pad of paper with you at all times so you can communicate. With many new resources available to learn sign language this may also be a viable option for you and your family.
Some patients opt to use a mechanical larynx to speak. There are multiple kinds of mechanical devices to choose from. Some are powered by air and others by batteries. Some devices require you to hold them up against your throat while others are inserted into your mouth. You may have to experiment with the assistance of your speech pathologist to find the right device for you.
While laryngeal cancer can be devastating, and the road to recovery may be long and hard, there are many resources to help you on your way. You will need the support of family and friends in addition to your medical team. Take advantage of the information listed below and feel free to visit our forum with any questions you might have.
National Cancer Institute. What You Need To Know About Cancer of the Larynx. Accessed: July 7, 2009 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/larynx