What is larynx cancer?The larynx (or voice box) is a part of your throat made from cartilage and muscles. It allows us to talk and protects the airway during swallowing. Larynx cancer (also known as laryngeal cancer) is a rare form of cancer caused by malignant cells that grow in the larynx. It affects around 13,000 people per year. However, this number is dropping because fewer people are smoking. Larynx cancer occurs most frequently in people who smoke tobacco. However, non-smokers can be prone to developing larynx cancer.
Types of larynx cancer:
- Squamous cell cancer of the larynx – One of the most common forms of larynx cancer develops from squamous cells, which are found in the innermost layer lining the larynx. This can be caused by a condition called dysplasia.
- Verrucous carcinoma – A less common variant of squamous cell cancer, Verrucous carcinoma is often seen in people who chew tobacco.
- Adenocarcinoma – Adenocarcinomas are cancers that begin in the glandular cells of the throat.
- Lymphoma – A lymphoma is a tumour that begins in the lymph nodes.
Causes and risk factors of larynx cancer:There are several things that have been linked to an increased risk of larynx cancer. These include:
- Smoking – People who smoke tobacco in the form of cigars or cigarettes are at a much higher risk of developing laryngeal cancers. Alternative methods of consumption such as chewing tobacco can also increase the risk.
- Alcohol consumption – Moderate to heavy consumption of alcohol can also increase the risk of larynx cancer. When alcohol consumption is combined with smoking, the risk increases drastically.
- Poor nutrition – If your diet lacks proper nutrition such as fruits and vegetables, the risk of larynx cancer increases.
- Exposure to chemicals – Regular exposure to chemicals in the workplace such as paint fumes can increase the likelihood of laryngeal cancers occurring.
- Age – People over the age of 40 are more likely to be diagnosed with larynx cancer.
- Gender – Men are four times more likely to develop larynx cancers.
- Existing conditions – There are several medical conditions that increase the risk of larynx cancer. These include Human papillomavirus (HPV), Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
Symptoms of laryngeal cancer:Below are the symptoms associated with larynx cancer. It should be noted that larynx cancers (specifically supraglottic cancers) may not present any obvious symptoms. Symptoms may not always be caused by cancer. For this reason, it is best to see a doctor so that the cause can be identified. An early diagnosis will allow doctors to begin treatment sooner. This will often improve the effectiveness of treatment. For this reason, it is important to see a doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms: Symptoms of glottic larynx cancer (vocal cords):
- Changes in voice
- Throat pains
- Difficulty swallowing
- Airway obstruction
- A lump in the neck
- A long-lasting cough
- Hoarseness or difficulty speaking
- Pain while swallowing
- Problems with swallowing or breathing caused via obstruction
How is larynx cancer diagnosed?If your doctor suspects that you have a form of larynx cancer, he/she may start by performing a physical examination. This will involve checking your neck for any bumps or other irregularities. If the doctor notices that something is wrong, they will ask to perform an internal examination of your neck. A fibre-optic nasal endoscopy is a process where a thin, flexible scope is inserted into the nostril. This will allow doctors to see the entirety of the larynx. Doctors may also suggest a CT scan or MRI. These scans allow doctors to examine a tumour and determine if it has spread to the surrounding lymph nodes. If the tumour is still small, an excisional biopsy may be performed. This is when doctors attempt to completely remove the mass and then send it to their lab for examination.
Treatment for larynx cancer:There are several available treatment options for larynx cancer. The availability of these options varies depending on the stage, location and type of laryngeal cancer present. Many of these options may also come with side effects that can affect your daily life post-treatment. For this reason, it is important to discuss all available options with your doctor to create a plan that works best for you and your lifestyle. Below are some of the most common treatments for larynx cancer:
Surgery:Surgery is the most common and preferred treatment for removal of larynx tumour. The aim of surgery is to remove as much cancer as possible without causing damage to surrounding tissue. The type of surgery you receive will vary depending on the stage and location of the tumour. Since surgery usually involves removing critical tissues from the larynx, it can lead to long-lasting effects on a patients voice. Below are some of the most common surgical procedures: Vocal cord stripping: Vocal cord stripping is a procedure where vocal cord tissue is removed using a surgical instrument. This technique is used either as a biopsy or to treat early-stage cancers. Due to minimal interference with tissue, this procedure does not usually affect the patient’s voice post-surgery. Cordectomy: A cordectomy is when either part or all of the vocal cords are removed to treat glottic (vocal cord) cancers. The effect this has on your speech varies depending on how much of the vocal cords are removed. Sometimes, it may only cause slight hoarseness, whereas more removal off tissue can cause noticeable changes in voice. Laryngectomy: A laryngectomy is when part or all of the larynx is removed in an effort to prevent the spread of cancer. During a partial laryngectomy, only a portion of the larynx is removed. If only the area above the vocal cords is removed, the patient’s voice will remain the same. If one or more vocal cords are removed, speech will be affected. During a total laryngectomy, the entire larynx is removed. This is usually recommended when cancer has progressed a lot. Because the entire larynx is removed, the windpipe must be brought up through the skin on the front of the neck creating a hole (stoma). This allows the patient to breathe. A total laryngectomy is often a life-saving surgery, but will affect a patient’s ability to speak post-surgery.
Radiation therapy:During radiation therapy, a radiation oncologist will target the source of cancer using high energy x-rays. Radiation therapy will often be used pre-surgery or post-surgery. It may also be used as an alternative to surgery in cases where the cancer has not spread a lot. Radiation therapy can cause side effects. These include:
- Red, irritated skin around the targeted area.
- Loss of hair around the targeted area.
- Tiredness and fatigue.
Chemotherapy:Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to target and destroy cancer cells. The type of chemotherapy received varies depending on the location and severity of a tumour. Chemotherapy may also be used in conjunction with surgery or radiation therapy to fight cancer more effectively. Chemotherapy is administered (orally or intravenously) in a series of sessions. The time in between each session gives the body a chance to fully recover. Chemotherapy does cause strong side effects, which include:
- Loss of hair.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Fatigue and tiredness.
- Increased risk of infection.