About the Condition
Laryngeal cancer, or cancer of the larynx, is an uncommon type of cancer that develops inside the tissue of the larynx (voice box). This disease is one of a group known as head and neck cancers. Laryngeal cancer occurs when the genetic material of cells in the larynx become damaged or changed, producing mutations that affect normal cell growth and division. The abnormal cells then replicate, causing cancer. If undetected, the cancer can spread beyond the voice box and move to other parts of the body.
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, and is four times more common in men than women*.
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
Most laryngeal cancers develop near the vocal cords, so one of the first noticeable symptoms is often a change in the sound of your voice, such as:
- Sounding unusually hoarse
- Finding it difficult to speak
Other symptoms include:
- pain when swallowing or difficulty swallowing
- a lump or swelling in your neck
- persistent cough
- bad breath
- a high-pitched wheezing noise when breathing
- unexplained weight loss
- fatigue and weakness
If you have been experiencing any of these symptoms for more than three weeks, or if you have any concerns about similar symptoms, it is essential that you see your doctor at once, as your chances of recovery are much higher if your cancer is diagnosed early.
These symptoms could indicate many other conditions, so even though laryngeal cancer is unlikely it is important that your symptoms are investigated by a GP.
If you’re referred to CCL for diagnosis, your consultant or oncologist will advise you on which tests are relevant to your individual symptoms. Because laryngeal cancer is so rare, and the symptoms could indicate a wide range of other conditions, diagnosing the disease involves a large number of different tests. These include:
- A physical examination of the inside and outside of your throat for abnormalities, such as lumps and swellings
- A Nasendoscopy, which involves a small, flexible tube with a light and video camera at one end (endoscope) being inserted into one of your nostrils and passed into the back of your throat, so the images from the endoscope are displayed on a monitor. The procedure isn’t painful but can sometimes feel uncomfortable, so an anaesthetic spray is often used to numb your nose and throat
- A Laryngoscopy, which involves using an endoscope to examine your larynx, which is inserted through the mouth. This allows medical staff to see the larynx in greater detail and is usually done under general anaesthetic
- A biopsy, where cell samples are taken for examination for signs of cancer, and can usually be done at the same time as a nasendoscopy or laryngoscopy. Alternatively, if you have a lump in your neck, a needle and syringe can be used to remove a tissue sample. This is known as fine needle aspiration
If the results of the biopsy show you have cancer and there’s a risk it may have spread, you’ll probably be referred for further testing to assess how widespread the cancer is. The tests may include:
- A Computerised Tomography (CT) scan, which shows a 3D image of the area being looked at
- A PET-CT scan, which combines a Computerised Tomography (CT) scan and a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan into one scan to give more detailed information about your cancer. A CT scan takes pictures from all around your body and uses a computer to put them together. A PET scan uses a very small amount of an injected radioactive drug to show where cells are active in the body
- A Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan, which is a procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of areas inside the body
- An Ultrasound scan, which uses high frequency sound waves to look inside the body and produce live images on a computer display
At CCL, patients with laryngeal cancer are treated by a team of different specialists, called a Multi-Disciplinary Team, or MDT. This team works together to create a treatment plan to suit the individual needs of the patient. Laryngeal cancer can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the severity of the cancer. Treatments include:
- Surgery, which could be:
- An Endoscopic Resection, which is used in early stage laryngeal cancer, and involves a surgeon using a microscope to get a magnified view of the larynx and to remove the cancer with a laser or small surgical instruments
- A Partial Laryngectomy, which involves removing the affected part of the larynx. This operation in now uncommon in the UK as most surgeons prefer to do an Endoscopic Resection whenever possible
- A Total Laryngectomy, which is usually used to treat advanced laryngeal cancer, and involves removing the entire larynx, and potentially any nearby lymph nodes that have been affected by the cancer
- Radiotherapy, which is where high-energy rays are used to destroy the cancer cells
- Chemotherapy, which involves the use of chemical agents which are toxic to cancer cells, destroying them and preventing them from spreading to different areas. This can be given by injection or in tablet form
Cancer doesn’t just leave a physical impact on an individual, it can have a huge emotional effect as well. Cancer and its treatment can be overwhelming, causing a wide variety of emotions, and it is important to remember that there is no right or wrong response. Reactions vary hugely from person to person, and most people find that it becomes easier to cope when they’re given additional support, so that’s what we do.
At CCL we provide support that caters to both the physical and emotional needs of the patient, before, during and after treatment. We offer a wide range of services for patients, as well as their loved ones, designed to make a very difficult time as easy as possible, and to give our patients the best treatment and support possible.