Thumbnail image of: Head and Throat: Illustration
Thumbnail image of: Respiratory System: Illustration

Laryngeal Cancer

What is laryngeal cancer?

Laryngeal cancer is a growth of abnormal cells that form tumors in the voice box (larynx). If not treated, the cancer can spread throughout the throat and block your air passage. It may spread to the lymph nodes in your neck and then to other parts of your body.

Laryngeal cancer can be life threatening. The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms for a time. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that you have.

What is the cause?

The exact cause of laryngeal cancer is not known, but it is most common among people who smoke heavily or who drink large amounts of alcohol.

What are the symptoms?

Often the only early symptom of laryngeal cancer is hoarseness that does not go away and gets worse over time. Usually there are no cold or flulike symptoms and no pain with the hoarseness.

You may have the following symptoms in later stages:

  • Chronic cough
  • Severe hoarseness
  • Trouble breathing and swallowing
  • Coughing up blood
  • Pain
  • A lump in the neck

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history, including symptoms and possible risk factors, and you will have a physical exam. You may have tests such as:

  • An exam of your larynx and vocal cords with mirrors or a special viewing tube. This exam can be done in your healthcare provider’s office.
  • A laryngoscopy, which is a procedure to look at your larynx and vocal cords with a flexible, lighted tube. You will be given medicine to help you relax or sleep during the procedure.
  • A biopsy of your larynx or vocal cords, which may be done during surgery, to take a small sample of tissue for testing.

How is it treated?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments. You may also talk with a surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your age
  • Your overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your body

Some treatments are not recommended for people in poor health or who do not stop heavy use of cigarettes or alcohol. A combination of the following treatments may be recommended.

  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • Surgery, which removes cancer cells or the larynx

Radiation alone cures most laryngeal cancers in the early stages. After treatment, cancer can come back. You will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

If your larynx is removed, you will permanently lose your ability to speak normally. With speech therapy, you will learn to speak in new ways, such as:

  • Have a one-way valve implanted between your food pipe and airway to allow you to use your food pipe instead of your larynx to form words by swallowing air and bringing the air back into your mouth for speech.
  • Use a device to cause a vibration that produces sound that you can shape into words with your tongue, cheeks, lips, and teeth.

Your treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms you may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments
  • Helping you manage your life with cancer

Ask your healthcare provider about clinical trials that might be available to you. Clinical trials are research studies to find effective cancer treatments. It’s always your choice whether you take part in one or not.

How can I take care of myself?

If you have been diagnosed with laryngeal cancer:

  • Talk about your cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your test results
    • How long it will take to recover
    • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
    • How to take care of yourself at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

Other things that may help include:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get regular exercise as recommended by your healthcare provider.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Drink liquid food supplements. This will help you avoid losing weight if your throat gets sore during treatment.
  • Try to reduce stress and take time for activities that you enjoy. It may help to talk with a counselor about your illness.
  • Talk with your family and your healthcare providers about your concerns. Ask your healthcare provider any questions you have about the disease, treatments, side effects of the treatments, sexuality, support groups, and anything else that concerns you.
  • If you use tobacco, try to quit. Talk to your healthcare provider if you need help to quit.
  • Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol. It may interfere with medicines you are taking. Alcohol can also make it harder for white blood cells to fight infections.
  • Tell your provider if your treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help you be more comfortable.

How can I help prevent the cancer from spreading or coming back?

  • Complete the full course of surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy treatments ordered by your healthcare provider.
  • See your healthcare provider right away if you notice a return of any previous symptoms, or you develop new symptoms.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-02-20
Last reviewed: 2014-06-09
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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