What is laryngeal cancer?

The larynx is also called the voicebox. It is in the neck, above the windpipe (trachea) and in front of the gullet (oesophagus).

The larynx allows air you breathe to reach your lungs. It also has two vocal cords which vibrate together when air passes between them. This makes the sound of your voice.

Around 2,360 people in the UK are diagnosed with laryngeal cancer each year. Laryngeal cancer is also called cancer of the larynx.

Types of laryngeal cancer

Most cancers of the larynx are squamous cell carcinoma. This means the cancer starts in the thin, flat (squamous) cells that line the larynx.

Here are some rarer types of laryngeal cancer:

  • Sarcoma – cancer of the connective tissues in the larynx.
  • Lymphoma – cancer of the lymphatic tissue in the larynx.
  • Adenocarcinoma – cancer that starts in the glandular (adeno) cells of the larynx
  • Neuroendocrine carcinoma – cancer that develops from cells similar to nerve (neuro) cells that make hormones (endocrine). Hormones control how different organs in the body work.

This information covers treatment for squamous cell cancer of the larynx. For information about rarer types of laryngeal cancer, contact our cancer support specialists.

Causes of laryngeal cancer

Doctors do not know the exact cause of laryngeal cancer. But there are certain risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.

Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will definitely get laryngeal cancer. Some people with risk factors never get cancer. Other people can develop laryngeal cancer without any known risk factors.

This type of cancer is rare in people under the age of 40. It is more common in people in their 60s and 70s. It is four times more common in men than women. The main risk factors are smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol. There may be other factors that increase your risk of developing laryngeal cancer, but more research is needed.

Smoking

The risk of developing laryngeal cancer increases the longer you smoke for, and the more you smoke.

Alcohol

Drinking lots of alcohol (especially spirits) over a long time increases your risk of developing laryngeal cancer. You can find information about alcohol guidelines and how alcohol can affect your health at drinkaware.co.uk.

The risk is higher for people who smoke and also drink lots of alcohol.

As with other cancers, laryngeal cancer is not infectious. This means you cannot pass it onto other people.

Symptoms of laryngeal cancer

The most common symptom of laryngeal cancer is changes to your voice, such as hoarseness.

If you are worried about laryngeal cancer, we have more information about the signs and symptoms.

Diagnosis of laryngeal cancer

If you have symptoms, you usually begin by seeing your GP. They will examine you and may arrange some tests. They might refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or a specialist clinic.

The specialist will ask about your symptoms, your general health and whether you are taking any medicines. They will also feel for any lumps in your neck. Swollen lymph nodes may be causing these lumps. But other medical conditions can also cause lumps, such as a swollen salivary gland. After carefully examining you, they will explain what tests you need.

These may include a:

  • Nasendoscopy

    A nasendoscopy is used to look at the back of your mouth and throat.

  • Laryngoscopy and biopsy

    A laryngoscopy is used to look at the larynx closely. During this test the doctor collects a sample (biopsy) of cells or tissue from the area that looks abnormal.

  • Fine needle aspiration (FNA)

    An FNA is a simple test used to check neck lumps.

Further tests for laryngeal cancer

If there are cancer cells in your larynx, your doctor will ask you to have some more tests. These will help you and your doctor make decisions about treatment. Possible tests include:

  • Blood tests

    You may have blood tests to check your general health.

  • Chest x-ray

    Chest x-rays take pictures of your chest to check your lungs and heart.

  • CT scan

    A CT scan takes a series of x-rays to create a three-dimensional image of a part of the body.

  • MRI scan

    An MRI scan uses magnetism to build up a detailed picture of areas of your body.

  • PET/CT scan

    A PET-CT scan gives more detailed information about the part of the body being scanned.

Waiting for test results can be a difficult time, we have more information that can help.

Staging and grading of laryngeal cancer

The results of your tests help your doctors find out more about the size and position of the cancer and whether it has spread. This is called staging.

A doctor decides the grade of the cancer by how the cancer cells look under the microscope. This gives an idea of how quickly the cancer might grow or spread.

Knowing the stage and grade of laryngeal cancer helps doctors decide the best treatment for you.

Treatment for laryngeal cancer

A team of specialists will meet to discuss the best possible treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT).

Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain the different treatments and their side effects. They will also talk to you about the things you should consider when making treatment decisions.

Treatment for laryngeal cancer depends on:

  • where the cancer is in the larynx
  • the size of the cancer and whether it has spread (its stage)
  • how fast-growing the cancer is (grade)
  • your general health.

We have more detailed information about how laryngeal cancer is treated.

The main treatments for early-stage cancer of the larynx are radiotherapy and surgery. Other treatments may be used for locally advanced and advanced laryngeal cancer.

The main treatments for early-stage cancer of the larynx are radiotherapy and surgery. Other treatments may be used for locally advanced and advanced laryngeal cancer. 

  • Radiotherapy

    Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy the cancer cells. It can be given on its own, with chemotherapy (chemoradiation) or with a targeted therapy drug.

  • Surgery

    Surgery can be used to remove the cancer through the mouth. Or sometimes, part or all of the larynx is removed through the neck.

  • Chemoradiation

    Chemoradiation is when you have chemotherapy and radiotherapy together. Chemotherapy can make the cancer cells more sensitive to radiotherapy treatment.

  • Chemotherapy

    Chemotherapy can be given before and after surgery. It can be given on its own or with radiotherapy. It an also be given to slow the growth of the cancer and control symptoms (palliative chemotherapy).

  • Targeted therapy

    Targeted therapy drugs work by targeting something in or around the cancer cell that is helping it grow and survive. The most commonly used targeted therapy to treat laryngeal cancer is cetuximab (Erbitux®). It can be given with radiotherapy.

  • Immunotherapy

    If chemotherapy has not worked, you may have an immunotherapy drug called nivolumab. These drugs use the immune system to find and attack cancer cells.

The treatments can be used alone or in combination with each other.

We have more information about:

After laryngeal cancer treatment

You will have regular follow-up appointments after treatment. These may continue for several years. You may also have regular follow-up appointments with a speech and language therapist (SLT), dietitian, restorative dentist and dental hygienist.

If you have any problems or notice new symptoms between appointments, let your doctor know as soon as possible.

Sex life

The physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment may affect your sexual confidence. After treatment, some people have problems with their body image. Laryngeal cancer and its treatment can change how you feel about kissing and having sex. This usually improves over time.

Well-being and recovery

Even if you already have a healthy lifestyle, you may choose to make some positive lifestyle changes after treatment.

Making small changes to the way you live such as eating well and keeping active can improve your health and well-being and help your body recover.

Late effects

Some side effects that develop during treatment may take a long time to improve, or may sometimes become permanent. These are called long-term effects. Other effects can develop many years after treatment has finished. These are known as late effects.

We have more information about late effects of laryngeal cancer treatment.

Your feelings after laryngeal cancer treatment

For some people, it takes several months to recover from treatment. It can be hard to cope if treatment has changed your appearance, voice or how you eat and drink. It is common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings.

There are national support groups that you may find helpful:

  • Changing Faces
    Changing Faces offers advice and information to anyone who is affected by a change in their appearance.
  • Cancer Laryngectomee Trust
    The Cancer Laryngectomee Trust provides support to people who are about to have, or have had, a laryngectomy.
  • National Association of Laryngectomee Clubs
    The National Association of Laryngectomee Clubs aims to promote the welfare of people who have had a laryngectomy, and their families.

How we can help

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