Laryngeal (Voice Box) Cancer
Laryngeal cancer is a disease in which abnormal or malignant tissues grow in the larynx (voice box). The larynx is a tube-shaped organ in the neck, connecting the pharynx (throat) to the trachea (wind pipe). This organ fulfills some very important functions. It produces sound for speaking, channels oxygen into the windpipe, and plays a role in preventing food and drink from entering the respiratory system.
When laryngeal cancer occurs, it typically starts in the vocal cords within the larynx. Left untreated, the cancer can become large enough to affect the movement of the vocal cords, and may metastasize (spread) to the lymph nodes and other organs in the body. Laryngeal cancer can be devastating, and have significant effects on voice, swallowing and quality of life.
According to the American Cancer Society, over 12,000 new cases of laryngeal cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States. The incidence is increasing at a time when many other types of cancer are decreasing. Still, it is fundamentally a preventable disease, as the risk factors are in big part associated with modifiable behaviors.
Causes and Risk Factors
Tobacco use is the major predisposing factor for laryngeal cancer. Cigarette, cigar and pipe smoke, along with “smokeless tobacco” like snuff and chewing tobacco, all contain benzopyrene and other hydrocarbons which are carcinogenic. Studies show that tobacco-users are 5 to 35 times more likely to develop laryngeal cancers than non-smokers. The risk is even higher for smokers who drink alcohol heavily, as the alcohol promotes the cancer-causing process.
Having certain viral infections such as the human papilloma virus (HPV), gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), nutritional deficiencies or a genetic predisposition, or being regularly exposed to certain irritants or toxins (such as wood dust, paint fumes, asbestos, sulfuric acid or other chemical or petroleum products), may contribute to the development of laryngeal cancer.
Signs and Symptoms
The most common symptom of laryngeal cancer is progressive or persistent hoarseness, or other voice changes. Other symptoms can include earache, sore throat, frequent throat clearing, pain when swallowing, persistent coughing, bad breath, a lump in the neck, blood in the saliva and unexplained fatigue or weight loss.
These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other, less serious maladies. Only a physician can make a definitive diagnosis. If any of these symptoms last for more than two weeks, a medical evaluation is warranted, to find out exactly what is going on. This is particularly critical for people who use tobacco and are at highest risk for laryngeal cancer.
When caught early, laryngeal cancer is highly curable. A number of different treatment options are available. Exactly which one is the right course of treatment depends on the stage of the cancer when it is detected. For early stage one laryngeal cancer it might be possible to treat with radiation therapy alone, whereas later stage one and stage two will probably need both radiation therapy and surgery. In stage three and four laryngeal cancer, more extensive surgery will be necessary and, in some cases, the entire larynx may need to be removed. Surgery will be combined with radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
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