Laryngeal Cancer: The Basics

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C, FAOSW
Content Contributor: Katherine Okonak, MSW, LSW
Last Reviewed: January 25, 2024

The larynx is your voice box. It helps make sound when you speak (your voice) and protects your airway when you swallow. Laryngeal cancer is cancer that starts in the larynx. It is caused by laryngeal cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grows, they form into a tumor. 

Laryngeal cancer that has spread from the larynx to another part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risks

Risk factors include:

  • Smoking.
  • Long-term irritation from laryngitis or voice abuse.
  • Reflux of stomach acid into the throat.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • HPV.
  • Having been around chemicals like wood dust, nitrogen mustard, and asbestos.

Signs of Laryngeal Cancer

The signs of laryngeal cancer depend on where in the larynx the cancer is. Some signs include:

  • Hoarse voice or any change in your voice.
  • Pain.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Lump or bump in the neck.

Diagnosis of Laryngeal Cancer

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have laryngeal cancer, they will do a full physical exam and ask you about your health and health history. They will pay close attention to your neck for lumps or bumps. They may also order some tests like:

  • Nasolaryngoscopy or laryngoscopy (procedures used to look at the nose, throat, airways, and/or voice box).
  • CT scan.
  • MRI.
  • Chest x-ray.

These tests are important but a biopsy is the only way to know for sure if you have laryngeal cancer. A biopsy:

  • Looks at a piece of the larynx for cancer cells.
  • Is used to find out the cancer type, the grade (how the cancer cells look under a microscope compared to normal cells), and if it has spread.

A pathology report is a summary of these results and is sent to your provider about 5-10 days after the biopsy. This report is an important part of planning your treatment. You can ask for a copy of the report for your records.

Staging Laryngeal Cancer

To guide treatment, laryngeal cancer is "staged." This stage is based on:

  • Size and location of the tumor.
  • Whether cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
  • Whether cancer cells are in other parts of the body.

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other parts of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage and type of laryngeal cancer will guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

Some of the treatments used for laryngeal cancer are:

  • Surgery: Can be used to remove all or as much as possible of the cancer.
  • Radiation: The use of high-energy x-rays to kill cancer cells. Can be used by itself or with surgery or chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy: The use of medications to kill cancer cells.
  • Chemoradiation: The use of chemotherapy and radiation at the same time.

This article is a basic guide to laryngeal cancer. You can learn more about your type of laryngeal cancer and treatment by using the links below.

Resources for More Information: Head and Neck Cancers

Surgical Procedures: Surgery and Staging for Laryngeal Cancer

Surgical Procedures: Partial and Total Laryngectomy

Laryngeal Cancer: Staging and Treatment

References

American Cancer Society. Laryngoscopy. 2019.

MedlinePlus. Laryngoscopy and nasolaryngoscopy. 2023.

National Cancer Institute. Tumor Grade. 2022.

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