Laryngeal cancer develops when the normal cells lining the larynx are replaced with abnormal cells (dysplasia) that become malignant and reproduce to form tumors. The development of dysplasia is strongly linked to life-long habits of smoking and heavy use of alcohol. The more a person smokes, the greater the risk of developing laryngeal cancer. It is unusual for someone who does not smoke or drink to develop cancer of the larynx. Occasionally, however, people who inhale asbestos particles, wood dust, paint or industrial chemical fumes over a long period of time develop the disease.
The symptoms of laryngeal cancer depend on the location of the tumor. Tumors on the vocal cords are rarely painful, but cause hoarseness. Anyone who is continually hoarse for more than two weeks or who has a cough that does not go away should be checked by a doctor.
Tumors in the supraglottal region above the vocal cords often cause more, but less distinct symptoms. These include:
persistent sore throat
pain when swallowing
difficulty swallowing or frequent choking on food
lumps in the neck
persistent ear pain (called referred pain; the source of the pain is not the ear)
change in voice quality
Tumors that begin below the vocal cords are rare, but may cause noisy or difficult breathing. All the symptoms above can also be caused other cancers as well as by less seriousness illnesses. However, if these symptoms persist, it is important to see a doctor and find their cause, because the earlier cancer treatment begins, the more successful it is.