Laryngeal cancer is cancer of your larynx, or voice box. Laryngeal cancer symptoms include voice changes, such as hoarseness, and a sore throat or cough that won’t go away. Treatment may include surgery to remove part or all of your larynx, called a laryngectomy.
Cancer affecting your larynx or vocal cords happens when cells grow uncontrollably in your larynx. As these cancerous (malignant) cells multiply, they invade tissues and damage your body.
Laryngeal cancer can form in any of the three main parts of your larynx:
Laryngeal cancer is part of a group of head and neck cancers. Every year, approximately 12,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. About 4,000 people die from it each year.
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It’s easy to mistake the first signs of laryngeal cancer for other conditions. The most common symptom — hoarseness that doesn’t improve after a few weeks — is easy to mistake as a sign of a cold. If you experience the following symptoms, talk to a healthcare provider for an accurate diagnosis:
If you have these symptoms, seek medical attention right away:
You also have a much higher chance of developing it if you use tobacco or drink alcohol frequently.
Smoking or using other tobacco products greatly increases your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. Drinking alcohol, especially a lot of it (more than one drink daily) also raises your risk. And using alcohol and tobacco together increases your risk even more.
Other risk factors of laryngeal cancer include:
A healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They’ll do a physical exam, examining your throat and neck. After the initial exam, you’ll most likely need other tests to confirm a diagnosis.
Diagnostic tests include:
Part of a diagnosis involves staging the cancer. Your care team will figure out how severe the disease is — how far the tumor has grown and if and where it has invaded tissues in your body.
Stages of laryngeal cancer include:
Treatment for laryngeal cancer includes:
You may have more than one treatment. For example, people sometimes have chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
Surgery removes cancer. The goal of laryngeal cancer surgery is to remove the tumor while preserving your larynx’s function. The surgeon may need to remove part or all of your larynx. Surgical procedures include:
For early laryngeal cancer, your care team will likely recommend surgery or radiation therapy. Research has shown that both are effective. Your team will base the decision on several factors, including:
You can’t prevent all cancer. But you can lower your risk for developing cancer, including laryngeal cancer, with healthy behaviors:
There’s no regular screening test for laryngeal cancer. But talk to a healthcare provider if you have hoarseness, other voice changes or a persistent cough. Early detection catches cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat.
After your treatment, you’ll continue to have follow-up appointments with your healthcare provider to make sure you’re recovering well. Your provider will:
Your outlook depends on several factors, such as your cancer’s stage, your age and overall health. Generally, early laryngeal has a better cure rate. Advanced cancer that spreads to other areas has a poorer survival rate.
But even advanced laryngeal cancer can be cured. If it comes back, it usually happens within the first two or three years after treatment. After five years, there’s a very low risk of cancer returning. But if you smoke or have alcohol use disorder and don’t stop using these substances, you’re at higher risk of developing new cancers in this region.
If you have a total laryngectomy, your surgeon will put a new airway in your throat called a stoma. The stoma helps you breathe. It may be permanent or temporary. To take care of your stoma:
If you smoke, it’s important to quit. Don’t smoke before or during treatment, and stay tobacco-free even after you finish treatment. People who smoke after treatment have a higher chance of developing another type of cancer. But people who stop smoking have a much lower risk of cancer. Smoking also prevents you from healing completely, and it may worsen treatment side effects.
If you had a total laryngectomy (surgeons removed your larynx), you’ll need to learn a new way to speak. A speech therapist can help. If the surgeon only removed part of your larynx, your voice may feel hoarse at first, but you’ll likely regain your voice. Still, it may feel and sound different from before.
Other treatments, like radiotherapy may cause you to lose your voice temporarily, but it usually returns once your larynx has had time to heal.
If you’ve been diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, ask your healthcare provider:
A laryngeal cancer care team often consists of multiple providers from different fields:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
If you have laryngeal cancer symptoms, such as hoarseness or other voice changes, a cough that won’t go away or trouble swallowing, talk to your healthcare provider. With early treatment, the survival rates for stage 0 and stage 1 laryngeal cancer are excellent. Treating the cancer early can also preserve your ability to speak and eat. Ask your healthcare provider about treatment outcomes based on your cancer stage.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 12/23/2022.
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