What is laryngeal cancer?

Laryngeal cancer is cancer of the larynx, part of the throat. Cancer happens when specific cells grow uncontrollably. As the cells multiply, they invade and damage the body. In laryngeal cancer, these cancerous (malignant) cells start in the larynx (voice box).

How common is laryngeal cancer?

Laryngeal cancer is part of a group of head and neck cancers. Every year, approximately 13,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. About 3,700 people die from it each year.

What is the larynx?

The larynx is in your throat. It’s also known as the voice box. The larynx helps us speak, breathe and swallow. Our vocal cords are part of the larynx.

The larynx is mostly made up of cartilage, a flexible tissue that makes a supportive framework. The larynx has three parts:

  • Supraglottis (upper part): More than one in three laryngeal cancers (35%) start here.
  • Glottis (middle part): More than half of laryngeal cancers (60%) start here, where the vocal cords are.
  • Subglottis (lower part): About 5% of laryngeal cancers — 1 in 20 — start here.

What does the larynx do?

The larynx helps us:

  • Breathe: The vocal cords open to let air through.
  • Speak: The vocal cords close. As air passes through the vocal cords, they vibrate, helping create speech sounds.
  • Swallow: The epiglottis (part of the supraglottis) drops down over the larynx. The vocal cords close to keep food out of the lungs.

What are the risk factors for laryngeal cancer?

Smoking or using other tobacco products greatly increases your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. Drinking alcohol, especially a lot of it, also raises your risk. And using alcohol and tobacco together increases the risk even more.

Other risk factors for laryngeal cancer include:

  • Age: Laryngeal cancer happens more in people age 55 and older.
  • Gender: Men are more likely to develop this cancer, possibly because smoking and heavy alcohol consumption happen more among men.
  • History of head and neck cancer: About one in four (25%) people who have had head and neck cancer will get it again.
  • Job: People who have exposure to certain substances at work are at higher risk. These substances include sulfuric acid mist, wood dust, nickel, asbestos or manufacturing mustard gas. People who work with machines are also at higher risk.

What causes laryngeal cancer?

Researchers don’t know what causes laryngeal cancer. But if you have risk factors such as tobacco or alcohol use, you have a much higher chance of developing laryngeal cancer.

Some forms of HPV (human papillomavirus), a sexually transmitted disease, can cause laryngeal cancer.

What are the symptoms of laryngeal cancer?

It’s easy to mistake symptoms of laryngeal cancer for other conditions. If you experience these symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis:

  • Sore throat or cough that doesn’t go away.
  • Voice change, such as hoarseness, that doesn’t improve after two weeks.
  • Pain or other difficulties when you swallow.
  • Lump in the neck or throat.
  • Dysphonia, trouble making voice sounds.
  • Ear pain.

If you have these symptoms, seek medical attention right away:

  • Trouble breathing (dyspnea).
  • Stridor, breathing that’s noisy and high-pitched.
  • Globus sensation, feeling that something’s in your throat.
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis).

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