In this section: Laryngeal Cancer

laryNGeal Cancer
introduction

ALSO KNOWN AS VOICE BOX CANCER

 

What do we mean by 'Laryngeal Cancer'? It is a type of Throat Cancer that is also known as voice box cancer. If it's not the cancer type you're looking for, please explore the information about other types of Throat Cancers or other types of Head and Neck Cancers.


 
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1. What is Laryngeal Cancer?

There are many types of tumours (lumps) that occur in the larynx. Cancer occurs when cells become abnormal, grow uncontrollably and have the potential to spread to other parts of the body. These cells build up to form a mass (or lump). 

Many of tumours or lumps in the larynx are not cancers but are what doctors call ‘growths’ or ‘lesions’. Common examples include vocal cord nodules or papillomas.

Watch a 3D video explainer about Laryngeal Cancer:

 

 


2. What is the larynx?

The larynx (or voice box) is an organ in the front of the neck. The larynx is made up of cartilage (a firm tissue), muscles and ligaments which move to make different sounds and protect your lungs when swallowing. The cartilage in front of the larynx is sometimes called the Adam’s apple.

The larynx has three parts which doctors may refer to when describing where a cancer is located within the larynx:

  • upper (supraglottis): the area from the epiglottis down to the vocal cords at the top of the larynx. The epiglottis is responsible for protecting the lungs when swallowing foods and liquids.

  • middle (glottis): this area contains the vocal cords which open when breathing, and close when talking and swallowing.

  • lower (subglottis): the area below the vocal cords where the larynx joins the trachea (or windpipe). The trachea links the larynx to the lungs.

Behind and around the larynx is a horseshoe shaped area called the hypopharynx. The hypopharynx directs food into the oesophagus ( or food pipe). The larynx, hypopharynx and oesophagus all work together to make sure food is directed to the stomach when you swallow. If they are not working together properly, food can enter the lungs, causing a chest infection, and known as aspiration.


3. What does the larynx do? 

The larynx does three important things, it: 

  • allows air to pass into the lungs when you breathe

  • makes the sound of your voice so you can talk and sing by vibrating the vocal cords

  • has a flap (epiglottis) which works together with the vocal cords to close the larynx when swallowing to prevent food and drinks from going down the wrong path and entering the lungs.

The larynx, hypopharynx and oesophagus all work together to make sure food and drinks are directed to the stomach when you swallow. The epiglottis and the vocal cords close tightly when you swallow, blocking food entering the windpipe. The laryngeal muscles and nerves control the vocal cords and the swallowing action and may be damaged by cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx.

Diagram of the larynx and surrounding areas:
 


4. What causes Laryngeal Cancer?

Doctors often can’t explain why a person gets cancer. But we do know what makes some cancers more likely. The two main causes of Laryngeal Cancer are:

  • Smoking (cigarettes, cigars or pipes) or using ‘smokeless’ tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco) — If a person smokes or has smoked in the past, they have a higher risk of getting laryngeal cancer than someone who has never smoked. 

  • Drinking alcohol — If a person drinks a lot of alcohol over many years, they have a higher risk of getting laryngeal cancer, especially combined with smoking.

Get information about quitting smoking and reducing how much alcohol you drink

Other factors that may increase the risk of laryngeal cancer are: 

  • Being male – in Australia men are almost three times more likely than women to get Laryngeal Cancer

  • Age — Most Laryngeal Cancers occur in people aged 55 years and over

  • Family history — Those who have close family members with Laryngeal Cancer (a parent, sibling, or child) have a higher risk of getting Laryngeal Cancer  

  • Low immunity — For example if you take medications to suppress the immune system

  • Exposure to asbestos — People who have lived or worked in an environment that has exposed them to asbestos have a higher risk of developing Laryngeal Cancer

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FURTHER INFORMATION
  1. Head and Neck Cancer Australia Resources 
  2. External Links to other Head and Neck Cancer Resources