Laryngeal Cancer

General Information | Treatment Options | Additional Resources

General Information
  • About
  • Risk Factors
  • Signs & Symptoms
  • Detection
  • Stages

Laryngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the larynx.

The larynx (voice box) is located just below the pharynx (throat) in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords, which vibrate and make sound when air is directed against them. The sound echoes through the pharynx, mouth, and nose to make a person's voice.

Most laryngeal cancers form in squamous cells, the thin, flat cells lining the inside of the larynx.

There are three main parts of the larynx:

  • Supraglottis: The upper part of the larynx above the vocal cords, including the epiglottis.
  • Glottis: The middle part of the larynx where the vocal cords are located.
  • Subglottis: The lower part of the larynx between the vocal cords and the trachea (windpipe).

Use of tobacco products and drinking too much alcohol can affect the risk of developing laryngeal cancer.Possible signs of laryngeal cancer include a sore throat and ear pain.

These and other symptoms may be caused by laryngeal cancer or by other conditions. A doctor should be consulted if any of the following problems occur:

  • A sore throat or cough that does not go away.
  • Trouble or pain when swallowing.
  • Ear pain.
  • A lump in the neck or throat.
  • A change or hoarseness in the voice.

Tests that examine the throat and neck are used to help detect (find), diagnose, and stage laryngeal cancer.

The following tests and procedures may be used:

  • Physical exam of the throat and neck: An examination in which the doctor feels for swollen lymph nodes in the neck and looks down the throat with a small, long-handled mirror to check for abnormal areas.
  • Laryngoscopy: A procedure in which the doctor examines the larynx (voice box) with a mirror or with a laryngoscope (a thin, lighted tube).
  • Endoscopy: A procedure to look at organs and tissues inside the body to check for abnormal areas. An endoscope (a thin, lighted tube) is inserted through an incision (cut) in the skin or opening in the body, such as the mouth. Tissue samples and lymph nodes may be taken for biopsy.
  • CT scan (CAT scan): A procedure that makes a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body, taken from different angles. The pictures are made by a computer linked to an x-ray machine. A dye may be injected into a vein or swallowed to help the organs or tissues show up more clearly. This procedure is also called computed tomography, computerized tomography, or computerized axial tomography.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI).
  • Biopsy: The removal of cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
  • Barium swallow: A series of x-rays of the esophagus and stomach. The patient drinks a liquid that contains barium (a silver-white metallic compound). The liquid coats the esophagus and stomach, and x-rays are taken. This procedure is also called an upper GI series.

Certain factors affect prognosis (chance of recovery) and treatment options.

Prognosis (chance of recovery) depends on the following:

  • The stage of the disease.
  • The location and size of the tumor.
  • The grade of the tumor.
  • The patient's age, gender, and general health, including whether the patient is anemic.

Treatment options depend on the following:

  • The stage of the disease.
  • The location and size of the tumor.
  • Keeping the patient's ability to talk, eat, and breathe as normal as possible.
  • Whether the cancer has come back (recurred).

Smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol decrease the effectiveness of treatment for laryngeal cancer. Patients with laryngeal cancer who continue to smoke and drink are less likely to be cured and more likely to develop a second tumor. After treatment for laryngeal cancer, frequent and careful follow-up is important.

After laryngeal cancer has been diagnosed, tests are done to find out if cancer cells have spread within the larynx or to other parts of the body.

The process used to find out if cancer has spread within the larynx or to other parts of the body is called staging. The information gathered from the staging process determines the stage of the disease. It is important to know the stage of the disease in order to plan treatment. The results of some of the tests used to diagnose laryngeal cancer are often also used to stage the disease.

There are three ways that cancer spreads in the body.

The three ways that cancer spreads in the body are:

  • Through tissue. Cancer invades the surrounding normal tissue.
  • Through the lymph system. Cancer invades the lymph system and travels through the lymph vessels to other places in the body.
  • Through the blood. Cancer invades the veins and capillaries and travels through the blood to other places in the body.

When cancer cells break away from the primary (original) tumor and travel through the lymph or blood to other places in the body, another (secondary) tumor may form. This process is called metastasis. The secondary (metastatic) tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the bones, the cancer cells in the bones are actually breast cancer cells. The disease is metastatic breast cancer, not bone cancer.

The following stages are used for laryngeal cancer:Stage 0 (Carcinoma in Situ)

In stage 0, abnormal cells are found in the lining of the larynx. These abnormal cells may become cancer and spread into nearby normal tissue. Stage 0 is also called carcinoma in situ.

Stage I

In stage I, cancer has formed. Stage I laryngeal cancer depends on where cancer is found in the larynx:

  • Supraglottis: Cancer is in one area of the supraglottis only and the vocal cords can move normally.
  • Glottis: Cancer is in one or both vocal cords and the vocal cords can move normally.
  • Subglottis: Cancer is in the subglottis only.

Stage II

In stage II, cancer is in the larynx only. Stage II laryngeal cancer depends on where cancer is found in the larynx:

  • Supraglottis: Cancer is in more than one area of the supraglottis or surrounding tissues.
  • Glottis: Cancer has spread to the supraglottis and/or the subglottis and/or the vocal cords do not move normally.
  • Subglottis: Cancer has spread to one or both vocal cords, which may not move normally.

Stage III

Stage III laryngeal cancer depends on whether cancer has spread from the supraglottis, glottis, or subglottis.

In stage III cancer of the supraglottis:

  • cancer is in the larynx only and the vocal cords do not move normally, and/or cancer is in tissues next to the larynx; cancer may have spread to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor and the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters; or
  • cancer is in one area of the supraglottis only and in one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor; the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters and the vocal cords can move normally; or
  • cancer is in more than one area of the supraglottis or surrounding tissues and in one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor; the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters and/or the vocal cords do not move normally.

In stage III cancer of the glottis:

  • cancer is in the larynx only and the vocal cords do not move normally, and/or cancer is in tissues next to the larynx; cancer may have spread to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor and the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters; or
  • cancer is in one or both vocal cords and in one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor; the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters and the vocal cords can move normally; or
  • cancer has spread to the supraglottis and/or the subglottis and/or the vocal cords do not move normally. The cancer has also spread to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor and the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters.

In stage III cancer of the subglottis:

  • cancer is in the larynx only and the vocal cords do not move normally; cancer may have spread to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor and the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters; or
  • cancer is in the subglottis only and in one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor; the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters; or
  • cancer has spread to one or both vocal cords, which may not move normally, and to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor; the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters.

Stage IV

Stage IV is divided into stage IVA, stage IVB, and stage IVC. Each substage is the same for cancer in the supraglottis, glottis, or subglottis.

  • In stage IVA:
    • cancer has spread through the thyroid cartilage and/or has spread to tissues beyond the larynx such as the neck, trachea, thyroid, or esophagus, and may have spread to one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the original tumor; the lymph node is smaller than 3 centimeters; or
    • cancer has spread to one or more lymph nodes anywhere in the neck and the lymph nodes are smaller than 6 centimeters; cancer may have spread to tissues beyond the larynx, such as the neck, trachea, thyroid, or esophagus. Vocal cords may not move normally.
  • In stage IVB:
    • cancer has spread to the space in front of the spinal column and surrounds the carotid artery, or has spread to parts of the chest and may have spread to one or more lymph nodes anywhere in the neck (the lymph nodes may be any size); or
    • cancer has spread to a lymph node that is larger than 6 centimeters and may have spread as far as the space in front of the spinal column, around the carotid artery or to parts of the chest. Vocal cords may not move normally.
  • In stage IVC, cancer has spread beyond the larynx to other parts of the body.

Recurrent Laryngeal Cancer

Recurrent laryngeal cancer is cancer that has recurred (come back) after it has been treated. The cancer is most likely to come back in the first 2 to 3 years. It may come back in the larynx or in other parts of the body.

Cancer information from the NCI PDQ service