Laryngeal cancer is cancer of the larynx or voice box.
The larynx is located where the throat divides into the esophagus and the trachea. The esophagus is the tube that takes food to the stomach. The trachea, or windpipe, takes air to the lungs. The area where the larynx is located is sometimes called the Adam's apple.
The larynx has two main functions. It contains the vocal cords, cartilage, and small muscles that make up the voice box. When a person speaks, small muscles tighten the vocal cords, narrowing the distance between them. As air is exhaled past the tightened vocal cords, it creates sounds that are formed into speech by the mouth, lips, and tongue.
The second function of the larynx is to allow air to enter the trachea and to keep food, saliva, and foreign material from entering the lungs. A flap of tissue called the epiglottis covers the trachea each time a person swallows. This blocks foreign material from entering the lungs. When not swallowing, the epiglottis retracts, and air flows into the trachea. During treatment for cancer of the larynx, both of these functions may be lost.
Cancers of the larynx develop slowly. About 95% of these cancers develop from thin, flat cells similar to skin cells called squamous epithelial cells. These cells line the larynx. Gradually, the squamous epithelial cells begin to change and are replaced with abnormal cells. These abnormal cells are not cancerous but are pre-malignant cells that have the potential to develop into cancer. This condition is called dysplasia. Most people with dysplasia never develop cancer. The condition simply goes away without any treatment, especially if the person with dysplasia stops smoking or drinking alcohol.
The larynx is made up of three parts, the glottis, the supraglottis, and the subglottis. Cancer can start in any of these regions. Treatment and survival rates depend on which parts of the larynx are affected and whether the cancer has spread to neighboring areas of the neck or distant parts of the body.
The glottis is the middle part of the larynx. It contains the vocal cords. Cancers that develop on the vocal cords are often diagnosed very early because even small vocal cord tumors cause hoarseness. In addition, the vocal cords have no connection to the lymphatic system. This means that cancers on the vocal cord do not spread easily. When confined to the vocal cords without any involvement of other parts of the larynx, the cure rate for this cancer is 75% to 95%.
The supraglottis is the area above the vocal cords. It contains the epiglottis, which protects the trachea from foreign materials. Cancers that develop in this region are usually not found as early as cancers of the glottis because the symptoms are less distinct. The supraglottis region has many connections to the lymphatic system, so cancers in this region tend to spread easily to the lymph nodes and may spread to other parts of the body (lymph nodes are small bean-shaped structures that are found throughout the body; they produce and store infection-fighting cells). In 25% to 50% of people with cancer in the supraglottal region, the cancer has already spread to the lymph nodes by the time they are diagnosed. Because of this, survival rates are lower than for cancers that involve only the glottis.
The subglottis is the region below the vocal cords. Cancer starting in the subglottis region is rare. When it does, it is usually detected only after it has spread to the vocal cords, where it causes obvious symptoms such as hoarseness. Because the cancer has already begun to spread by the time it is detected, survival rates are generally lower than for cancers in other parts of the larynx.
About 12,000 new cases of cancer of the larynx develop in the United States each year. Each year, about 3,900 die of the disease. Laryngeal cancer is between four and five times more common in men than in women. Almost all men who develop laryngeal cancer are over age 55. Laryngeal cancer is about 50% more common among African-American men than among other Americans.