Types and Symptoms of Tracheal Cancer

The trachea (windpipe) is the airway that runs from your larynx (voice box) to your bronchi, which lead to your lungs. Although tumors developing in the trachea (primary tracheal tumors) and the bronchi are rare, Mount Sinai’s multidisciplinary head and neck oncology team has extensive experience in surgically treating and removing them.

Some tracheal and bronchial tumors occur as a result of cancer spreading (metastasizing) to the trachea or bronchi. Although malignant tracheal tumors are more common in adults, they are often benign when found in children.

Types of Tracheal Cancer

The most common types of malignant tracheal and bronchial tumors include the following:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: This is the most common type of tracheal tumor. It is a fast-growing cancer that usually arises in the lower portion of the trachea. Squamous cell carcinoma often penetrates the mucosal lining of the airway as it grows, which can cause ulceration and bleeding in the trachea. Squamous cell carcinoma is more common in men than women. Smoking is the main risk factor for this cancer type.
  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma: Unlike squamous cell carcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma is less likely to penetrate the mucosal lining of the trachea. However, these slow-growing tumors eventually close off the airway as they progress. Adenoid cystic carcinomas are found in equal numbers among men and women between the ages of 40 and 60. Smoking is not a risk factor for this cancer.
  • Carcinoid tumors. These tumors arise from neuroendocrine cells, which produce hormones such as serotonin. Although carcinoid tumors are more commonly found in the gastrointestinal system, a few occur in the bronchi.

Common benign tumors of the trachea include the following:

  • Chondromas: The most common benign tracheal tumor, these firm nodules are located in the cartilage rings of the trachea. Chondromas occur more frequently in the larynx (voice box).
  • Hemangiomas: These growths consist of an abnormal buildup of capillaries in the trachea.
  • Papillomas: These cauliflower-like tumors are thought to be caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Papillomas are the most common benign tracheal tumor in children.

Symptoms of Tracheal Cancer

Signs and symptoms of tracheal and bronchial tumors include the following:

  • Coughing, which may involve coughing up blood
  • Difficult or labored breathing
  • Stridor, which is a high-pitched sound that occurs as breath is drawn in
  • Wheezing

Patients with more advanced disease may also experience difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) and hoarseness, which usually indicates that the cancer has spread beyond the trachea.