Radiotherapy for laryngeal cancer

Radiotherapy uses high-energy rays to destroy cancer cells. How and when radiotherapy is used for cancer of the larynx will depend on the stage of the cancer. Radiotherapy can be used instead of surgery, without other treatments, for early-stage cancer of the larynx. It might be used with other treatments when the cancer is locally advanced or to control symptoms of advanced cancer.

You will normally have radiotherapy as an outpatient in the hospital radiotherapy department. Treatment is usually given daily from Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekend. Some people have treatment at the weekend as well.

Courses of radiotherapy can last from around 3 to 7 weeks. Your clinical oncology doctor will tell you how long your treatment will last and the possible side effects.

There are different ways of giving radiotherapy. Conformal radiotherapy (CRT) may be used for early stage laryngeal cancers and intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) or image-guided radiotherapy (IGRT) may be used for locally advanced and advanced laryngeal cancers.

How radiotherapy is used to treat cancer of the larynx

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. How and when radiotherapy is used to treat cancer of the larynx depends on the stage of the cancer.

Radiotherapy for early-stage cancers

Radiotherapy can be used on its own if you have an early-stage laryngeal cancer. Sometimes doctors advise you to have radiotherapy when surgery is likely to affect your speech or swallowing.

Radiotherapy for locally advanced cancers

If the cancer is larger or has spread to lymph nodes (glands) or tissue nearby, you may have radiotherapy in combination with other treatments. Radiotherapy can be given:

  • after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of cancer coming back (adjuvant radiotherapy)
  • after surgery, together with chemotherapy (adjuvant chemoradiation)
  • instead of surgery, together with chemotherapy (chemoradiation)
  • with a targeted therapy drug.

The aim of radiotherapy for early and locally advanced cancer of the larynx is to cure the cancer. This is called radical radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy for advanced cancers

Sometimes it isn’t possible to cure the cancer and the main aim of treatment is to reduce the symptoms (palliative radiotherapy).

Radiotherapy can be used to shrink a tumour that is causing swallowing or breathing problems. It can also relieve symptoms if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Your course of radiotherapy

Treatment is usually given as a course of short, daily treatments in the hospital radiotherapy department. Each treatment is called a fraction. Radiotherapy can be given in different ways and you will usually have it as an outpatient. The treatments are normally given each day from Monday to Friday, with a rest at the weekend. However, sometimes you may also have treatment at the weekend, or more than one treatment each day – this is called hyperfractionation.

Radiotherapy treatment can last between 3 and 7 weeks. Your clinical oncologist will talk to you about the length of your course of treatment and possible side effects. If you’re having radiotherapy to relieve symptoms, you may only need a short course or a single dose.

Ways of giving radiotherapy

Conformal radiotherapy (CRT)

This is one way of giving radiotherapy for early laryngeal cancers. A special attachment to the radiotherapy machine shapes the radiation beams to match the shape of the cancer. This reduces the radiation received by surrounding healthy cells.

Intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) and image-guided radiotherapy (IGRT)

These treatments are now available in most hospitals. IMRT accurately shapes the radiotherapy beams and allows different doses to be given to different parts of the treatment area. This can reduce the damage to healthy tissue. IGRT involves having images taken before each treatment. These are used to check that you are in exactly the right position for treatment. When possible, doctors use both IMRT and IGRT to treat locally advanced and advanced laryngeal cancer. These treatments can help reduce the risk of some long-term radiotherapy side effects, such as damage to the salivary glands, which causes a dry mouth.

Back to Radiotherapy explained

Planning your treatment

Your specialist will plan your radiotherapy carefully to make sure it’s as effective as possible.

Possible side effects

If you are having radiotherapy for cancer of the larynx, you may have some side effects during treatment and afterwards.

Before your radiotherapy

Before you start radiotherapy, your team will explain what your treatment involves and how it may affect you.

Making a radiotherapy mask

During radiotherapy to the head and neck a mask is used to help you keep still so that exactly the right area is treated.

Your radiotherapy team

You will meet many different specialists from your radiotherapy team. You may see them before, during and after radiotherapy treatment.

After treatment

It can take time to recover from radiotherapy. Support is there if you have any problems.