Laryngeal Cancer: Signs and Symptoms, Causes, Risks, Complications, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prognosis

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Illustration of Laryngeal Cancer

1Overview

Cancer is a dreaded disease today. It is caused by healthy cells mutating into cancerous or malignant cells that grow uncontrollably, leading to various complications. Cancer can affect any part of the body, including the throat.

One part of the throat is the larynx, and it can be affected by cancer, too. Laryngeal cancer affects the larynx or the voice box. It is a tube approximately two inches long, and it is situated above the trachea in the neck.

It helps protect the windpipe during swallowing, produces sounds when talking or allows the air to reach the lungs. This is because it’s the part of the throat that separates the tube going to the lungs and to the stomach.

According to the American Cancer Society, in 2018, estimates show that about 13,150 new cases of laryngeal cancer will be diagnosed and about 3,710 individuals will die from the disease.

Moreover, the National Cancer Institute reports that head and neck cancers account for about 3 percent of all cancers in the United States.

2Signs and Symptoms

Unlike other types of cancer, laryngeal cancer is easy to detect because the symptoms are distinct and noticeable. The common signs and symptoms of laryngeal cancer include:

Hoarseness of voice – For individuals with hoarseness of voice for more than three weeks, it could be a sign of laryngeal cancer. However, there are many causes of having a hoarse voice such as screaming, shouting, smoking, post nasal drip, allergies, acid reflux, injury to the throat and thyroid problems.

Difficulty swallowing – Difficulty of swallowing is the feeling that there is something stuck in the throat to being unable to swallow food. In some cases, the patient may experience pain or a burning sensation when swallowing food.

Weight loss – A sudden and unexplained weight loss may signal the presence of cancer in the body, including laryngeal cancer. It may also be due to the fact that patients with laryngeal cancer have difficulty in swallowing.

Shortness of breath and a persistent cough – Some patients who have laryngeal cancer may experience shortness of breath or difficulty of breathing. Also, their breathing may have an abnormal sound (stridor), and they may have a cough that never goes away.

The other signs and symptoms of laryngeal cancer include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Lump in the neck
  • Persistent and excessive coughing
  • A persistent sore throat or an earache
  • Coughing up blood
  • Sudden and unexplained weight loss

3Causes

Laryngeal cancer is caused by mutations and changes in cells of the larynx, a part of the throat. The exact cause of how cancer develops is still unclear, but many scientists believe that the change happens in the cell’s DNA.

The DNA is where instructions that control the growth and replication of cells can be found. When there is a change in the cell’s DNA, it alters the instructions that control growth.
As a result, the cells would grow and multiply uncontrollably, leading to the development of tumors.

However, some factors may also trigger the development of laryngeal cancer. Exposure to certain things that can damage the cells of the larynx may increase the risk of developing cancer. Cigarette smoking, exposure to toxic substances, alcohol drinking and exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) may heighten one’s risk of having laryngeal cancer.

4Risk Factors

Though the exact cause of laryngeal cancer is still unclear, a number of things may heighten your chances of having this type of cancer. These include:

Cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol drinking – The two main culprits that can increase one’s risk of developing laryngeal cancer are tobacco and alcohol. Alcohol and tobacco contain certain chemicals that can damage the cells and lining of the larynx. The more and longer you drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, the higher the risk of laryngeal cancer.

According to studies, individuals who smoke more than 25 cigarettes a day or those who have smoked cigarettes for more than 40 years, are at 40 times more likely to develop cancer of the larynx than non-smokers. For alcohol drinkers, people who regularly drink alcohol in excessive amounts, are approximately three times more likely to develop laryngeal cancer. For people who smokes and drinks a lot, the risk is greater.

Family history – Cancer may run in families. People with a relative (first-degree) like parents, siblings or children who have been diagnosed with laryngeal cancer or other cancers involving the head and neck may have a greater risk of developing laryngeal cancer.

Exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) – Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is an infection caused by the HPV virus, which affects the moist membranes of the body and the skin. It affects the cervix, mouth, throat and the anus.

It creates changes in the cells of these areas, like the cervix, that leads to cervical cancer. The infection may have a similar effect on the cells on the larynx, which may also trigger the development of cancer cells.

Diet – Some studies have shown that a diet high in red meat, fried food, and processed foods may increase the risk of developing laryngeal cancer. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables and healthy grains may also decrease the risk.

Exposure to harmful substances and chemicals – Occupations that expose its workers to high levels of certain chemicals may increase their risk of developing laryngeal cancer. The most common chemicals and substances include:

  • Coal or wood dust
  • Asbestos
  • Nickel
  • Paint or diesel fumes
  • Sulphuric acid fumes
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Formaldehyde

5Complications

Laryngeal cancer may lead to complications such as:

Disfigurement – When the treatment of laryngeal cancer involves the removal of the tumor, it may leave some disfigurement of the throat and neck. Also, if the tumor grows big, it may also lead to disfigurement.

Airway obstruction – When a tumor grows in the throat, it leads to airway obstruction and blockage, making it difficult to breathe.

Difficulty swallowing and eating – Tumors in the throat may lead to difficulty in swallowing and eating. Also, after surgery, it may be hard for the patient to swallow.

Metastasis – In some cases, cancer can spread to the other parts of the body, particularly during the last stages of the illness.

Voice loss – Treatment that involves the removal of the larynx may affect one’s speech.

6Diagnosis

Laryngeal cancer may be easy to detect because the symptoms may immediately pinpoint the condition. First, the doctor needs to conduct a complete physical assessment and medical history interview.

The doctor will conduct a physical exam of the throat and neck to check for abnormal areas. This can be done through palpation. The doctor will also check the inside of the mouth with a gloved finger to check for the areas in the throat.

The other tests include:

Biopsy – This procedure entails the removal of the cells or tissues in the affected area. The samples will be checked under a microscope to look for any signs of cancer. The sample tissue may be acquired through laryngoscopy and endoscopy.

CT scan – Imaging tests may be done to see the 3D images of the throat and neck areas. A CT scan is a procedure to produce detailed photos of areas in the body, which are taken from various angles.

MRI scan – MRI or magnetic resonance imaging scan is a procedure that uses a magnet, a computer and radio waves to take photos of some areas of the body. It produces 3D images.

PET scan – PET scan or positron emission tomography scan is a procedure to detect malignant or cancerous cells in the body.

7Treatment

The treatment of cancer depends on the location and severity of the condition. The main treatments used for laryngeal cancer include surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.

For early stages, surgery or radiotherapy may help remove the cancerous cells from the area. However, if the cancer is already in the advanced stages, a combination of the three methods can be used.

Often, those who undergo surgery to remove the larynx may not be able to talk or breathe the normal way. Rather, they need to have a permanent hole in the neck called a stoma. Also, there are devices that can be used for the person to be able to speak again.

Radiotherapy is also used to kill the cancer cells and shrink the tumor. In some cases, the doctors may recommend using an external beam radiation therapy that is directed to the tumor inside the neck from outside.

On the other hand, chemotherapy kills the cancer cells by using drugs. The kill the cancer cells and maximize the effects of radiotherapy. Usually, the drugs are introduced into the body through the veins and they travel through the bloodstream killing rapidly growing cells. These include both cancerous and healthy cells.

8Prognosis

The prognosis or outlook of people with laryngeal cancer relies on the severity and extent of cancer. The earlier it was detected, the better the prognosis because treatment is initiated early. Fortunately, most laryngeal cancers are very easy to detect, prompting early treatment.

Overall, approximately 70 out of every 100 individuals will develop liver for at least five years after laryngeal cancer diagnosis. Also, about 60 people out of 100 people will live for at least 10 years after diagnosis.

If you are a smoker and you stopped when you were aware you have laryngeal cancer, the prognosis is better.