The larynx, or voice box, sits above the trachea. The larynx makes sound for speaking and protects the airway during swallowing. The vocal cords change the sound and pitch of the voice; they close tightly when you swallow and open up to let you breathe. The larynx has three primary components:
- Supraglottis: the tissue above the vocal cords, including the epiglottis
- Glottis: the area where the vocal cords are located
- Subglottis: the area below the vocal cords connected to the trachea, which transports air to the lungs
Most cases of laryngeal cancer originate in the squamous cells, which are the thin, flat cells lining the larynx and hypopharynx. The hypopharynx is the part of the throat situated immediately behind the mouth and nasal cavity and above the esophagus, larynx, and trachea. It is part of the pharynx, which is part of the digestive and respiratory systems.
Squamous cell cancer forms gradually. Smoking and heavy drinking can cause cells to change and become pre-cancers. Most pre-cancers do not become cancer. If the causes, such as smoking, stop, the pre-cancers usually go away.
However, some pre-cancers do grow into cancer. The earliest form of cancer is called carcinoma in situ (CIS), and only affects the cells of the lining. CIS has not yet spread into lower layers of cells or spread to other parts of your body. Some of these very early cancers go away on their own. Most can be cured by stripping or cutting away the cells or by destroying them with a laser beam. If CIS is not treated, however, it can develop into cancer and spread to other parts of your body.
Other types of cancer of the larynx and hypopharynx are very rare, and include adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma, chondrosarcomas, and synovial sarcomas.
Symptoms of Larynx Cancer
Many cancers of the larynx and some cancers of the hypopharynx can be found at an early stage when they are small and have not spread. Cancers that form on the vocal cords are often found early because they cause hoarseness. Cancers that start above or below the vocal cords are often found later.
Symptoms of larynx and hypopharynx cancers include:
- Persistent sore throat
- Constant coughing
- Pain when swallowing
- Trouble swallowing
- Ear pain that doesn't go away
- Trouble breathing
- Weight loss
- Hoarseness or voice changes that last more than two weeks
- Lump or mass in the neck
If you suspect you may have symptoms of larynx or hypopharynx cancer, we can help. Mount Sinai’s ear, nose, and throat specialists have extensive experience in evaluating patients for larynx or hypopharynx cancer and delivering the newest available cancer treatments.