Frequently Asked Questions About Laryngeal Cancer

Illustration of the anatomy of the respiratory system, adult
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Q: What is the larynx?

A:  The larynx is located in the neck. It is commonly known as the voice box. It is about two inches long and looks like a tube. We use the larynx when we breathe, talk, and swallow. The larynx is located at the top of the windpipe called the trachea.

Q: What is laryngeal cancer?

A:  Cancer that starts in the larynx is laryngeal cancer. More than 12,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with it annually and each year about 3,600 people die from it.

Q: Who gets laryngeal cancer?

A:  Certain factors can make one person more likely to get laryngeal cancer than another person:

  • Tobacco use. Smokers are more likely to get laryngeal cancer than nonsmokers. 

  • Alcohol consumption. Some reports have found people who drink alcohol heavily (two or more drinks a day) are at an increased risk. Those who smoke and drink heavily are at an even greater risk than people who do not.

  • Gender. Laryngeal cancer is four to five times more common among men than women.

  • Race. Laryngeal cancer is more common among African Americas than among white Americans.

  • Age. Most people diagnosed with laryngeal cancer are older than age 65.

Q: What are the symptoms of laryngeal cancer?

A:  The symptoms of laryngeal cancer depend on where the tumor is and its size. Tumors are most often found on the vocal cords. They are not usually painful, but they do cause changes in the voice.

Tumors that are above the vocal cords may cause these symptoms:

  • Lump in the neck

  • Sore throat

  • Earache

Tumors that begin in the area below the vocal cords may cause noisy breathing.

These symptoms can be caused by laryngeal cancer or other, less serious problems. Any symptoms should be checked by a doctor.

Q: What is a laryngoscopy?

A:  Laryngoscopy is a test that helps doctors find out whether a person has cancer of the larynx. There are two types of laryngoscopy, indirect and direct:

  • During an indirect laryngoscopy, the doctor looks down the person's throat using a small mirror with a long handle.

  • During a direct laryngoscopy, the doctor inserts a lighted tube called a laryngoscope through the nose or mouth. This exam allows the doctor to see areas that cannot be seen with a simple mirror.

Q: What is a biopsy?

A: During a biopsy, the doctor removes a piece of tissue while the person is under local or general anesthetic. A pathologist then looks at the tissue under a microscope. If there is cancer present, the pathologist can usually tell what type it is.

Q: Should a person with cancer get a second opinion for a diagnosis of laryngeal cancer?

A:  Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get one. Following are some of those reasons:

  • Not feeling comfortable with the treatment decision

  • Being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer

  • Having several options for how to treat the cancer

  • Not being able to see a cancer expert

Many people have a hard time deciding which oral cancer treatment to have. It may help to have a second doctor review the diagnosis and treatment options before starting treatment. It is important to remember that in most cases, a short delay in treatment will not lower the chance that it will work. Some health insurance companies even require that a person with cancer seek a second opinion, and many other companies will pay for a second opinion if asked.

Q: How can someone get a second opinion?

A: There are many ways to find a doctor who can give a second opinion:

  • Your primary doctor. Your primary doctor may be able to recommend a doctor who specializes in cancer.

  • The Cancer Information Service.  This service is available by calling 800-4-CANCER. It informs callers of treatment facilities, including cancer centers and other programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.

  • Other options. People with cancer can get the names of doctors from local medical societies, nearby hospitals or medical schools, and local cancer advocacy groups. People with cancer can also get information from other people who have had laryngeal cancer.

Q: How is laryngeal cancer treated?

A:  Laryngeal cancer may be treated in any of these ways:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor

  • Radiation therapy to shrink the tumor

  • Chemotherapy to reduce the spread of the cancer

  • Immunotherapy

  • A combination of these treatments

Q: What are clinical trials?

A:  Clinical trials are studies of new kinds of cancer treatments. You may also hear the term clinical study used to describe this type of research. Doctors use clinical trials to learn about how well new treatments work and what their side effects are. Promising treatments are ones that work better or have fewer side effects than the current treatments. People who participate in these studies get to use treatments before the FDA approves them for the general public. People who join trials also help researchers learn more about cancer and help future cancer patients.


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