Laryngeal (larynx) cancer 

Introduction 

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Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

The larynx

The larynx, also known as the voice box, is part of the throat found at the entrance of the windpipe (trachea). The larynx has three main functions. It:

  • channels oxygen into the windpipe during breathing
  • acts like a valve by closing off the trachea and preventing food or drink falling down into the lungs when eating or drinking
  • produces the sound of your voice; the larynx contains two folds of tissue (vocal cords) that vibrate as air passes through them

Laryngeal cancer, or cancer of the larynx, is an uncommon type of cancer that develops inside the tissue of the larynx (voice box).

Symptoms of laryngeal cancer can include:

  • changes in the voice, such as sounding hoarse
  • pain when swallowing or difficulty swallowing
  • a persistent cough
  • a lump or swelling in your neck

Read more about the symptoms of laryngeal cancer.

When to seek medical advice

You should visit your GP if you have had any of the symptoms listed above for more than three weeks.

As these symptoms are similar to those of many other conditions, it's unlikely they are caused by cancer. However, it's a good idea to rule out all possible causes of your symptoms by visiting your GP.

Why it happens

It's not clear exactly what causes laryngeal cancer, but factors that can increase your risk have been identified. They include:

  • smoking tobacco
  • regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol
  • having a family history of head and neck cancer
  • exposure to certain chemicals and substances, such as coal dust and diesel fumes

By adopting a healthy lifestyle, including avoiding alcohol and tobacco, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing laryngeal cancer.

Read more about the causes of laryngeal cancer and preventing laryngeal cancer.

Who is affected

Laryngeal cancer is an uncommon type of cancer. In the UK, there are about 2,300 new cases of laryngeal cancer each year.

The condition is rare in people under 40, with most cases affecting people aged 60 years or over.

Laryngeal cancer is about four times more common in men than women.

How laryngeal cancer is treated

The main treatments for laryngeal cancer are radiotherapy, surgery and chemotherapy.

Radiotherapy and surgery to remove the cancerous cells from the larynx can often cure laryngeal cancer if it is diagnosed early.

If the cancer is diagnosed after it has started to spread, a combination of surgery to remove part or all of the larynx, radiotherapy and chemotherapy can be used.

If you have surgery to remove all of your larynx, you will no longer be able to speak or breathe in the usual way. Instead, you will breathe through a permanent hole in your neck (stoma) and you will need additional treatment to help restore your voice. This may include an implant in your throat, or an electrical device you hold against your throat to produce sound.

Read more about treating laryngeal cancer and recovering from laryngeal cancer.

Outlook

The outlook for laryngeal cancer depends on how far the cancer has spread before it is diagnosed and treated. This is known as the stage of the cancer. See diagnosing laryngeal cancer for more information about staging.

Fortunately, most laryngeal cancers are diagnosed at an early stage, which means the outlook is generally better than some other types of cancer.

Overall, about 65 out of every 100 people will live for at least 5 years after diagnosis and about 57 out of every 100 people will live for at least 10 years.

If you smoke, stopping smoking after being diagnosed with laryngeal cancer may help improve your outlook.

Page last reviewed: 26/10/2013

Next review due: 26/10/2015

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