Larynx Cancer

What is it?

Cancer is caused by cells which develop abnormalities and start to grow out-of-control. Cancer cells can also invade other tissues and will form tumors in most cases. Cancer cells often travel to other parts of the body - by getting into the bloodstream or lymph vessels - where they can form new tumors called metastases.

Laryngeal cancer (also called cancer of the larynx) is a type of head and neck cancer which develops in the larynx - that is, the voice box. Most laryngeal cancers originate in the glottis (the area containing the vocal cords) but can also originate in the supraglottis (the area above) or the subglottis (the area below).  Laryngeal cancer may spread by direct extension to adjacent structures; distant metastases to the lung are most common.

Tobacco and alcohol are the two biggest risks factors for laryngeal cancers, with a further increased risk when smoking and drinking are combined. The condition is rare in people under 40, with most cases affecting people over 60, and laryngeal cancer is about four times more common in men that women.


How is it treated?

Management of laryngeal cancers is a coordinated multidisciplinary approach typically involving ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeons (otolaryngologists), medical oncologists, and radiation oncologists. The treatment for laryngeal cancer consists in removing the cancerous cells from the larynx and largely depends on how far the cancer has spread. The medical armamentarium against laryngeal cancers includes:

  • Surgery (removal of the affected cells)
  • Chemotherapy (the use of drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells)
  • Radiotherapy (the use of radiation to kill cancer cells)

These treatments may be used alone or in combination. A severely affected patient may require a laryngectomy (removal of the larynx), partial or complete.


What is the outlook?

As for any other cancer, the outlook is better when laryngeal cancer is diagnosed at an early stage. Overall, about 65% of people will live for at least 5 years after diagnosis and about 57% of people will live for at least 10 years after diagnosis.

However, regardless of the survival rate, the therapies used to treat laryngeal cancer may be associated with side effects affecting the way the patient breathes, eats, or speaks:

  • Breathing: following a partial laryngectomy, a temporary tracheostomy may need to be put in place in during the healing process. Patients who underwent a total laryngectomy will need a permanent tracheostomy to breathe. Radiotherapy may also result in breathing trouble caused by swelling of the larynx.
  • Eating: similarly, patients who had a laryngectomy will need to be temporarily fed through a tube during the healing process. Radiotherapy may also cause swallowing disorders. In case of severe swallowing disorders, a gastrostomy tube may need to be placed in order to deliver nutrition directly to the stomach.
  • Speaking: patients who had their larynx removed will not be able to speak normally because they no longer have vocal cords - a number of alternative techniques may be used to replicate the vocal cords function.

Sources: American Cancer Society (ACS), National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Health Service (NHS).