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A doctor examining a patient for signs of laryngeal cancer.

Laryngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that develops the voice box (larynx), a hollow muscular organ that houses the vocal cords and plays an important role in speech. As part of the respiratory system, the larynx also connects the throat to the windpipe (trachea) and serves as a passageway for inhaled air to reach the lungs.

The most common type of laryngeal cancer is squamous cell carcinoma, which forms in the mucosal cells that line the larynx. Other types include cancers that arise in the tiny salivary glands underneath the mucosa and sarcomas that develop in the muscles, cartilage and other structural tissues that comprise the larynx.

Causes of - and risk factors for -laryngeal cancer

Like all tumors, laryngeal cancer forms when healthy cells undergo abnormal changes that cause them to grow and divide very rapidly. The excess cells then build up, bind together and form tumors.

Although the precise causes of laryngeal cancer are not yet fully understood, scientists have identified two main risk factors: tobacco use and alcohol consumption. Both tobacco products and alcoholic beverages are believed to contain harmful chemicals that can damage the cells of the larynx. In general, the risk level increases with the amount of use.

Some forms of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection (STI), have also been linked to laryngeal cancer. Other risk factors include:

  • Advanced age – Laryngeal cancer is most frequently diagnosed after age 55.
  • Gender – Studies show that men are approximately five times more likely to develop laryngeal cancer than women, possibly because they are more likely to use tobacco and alcohol.
  • Prior history of head or neck cancer – Approximately 25% of all head and neck cancers recur.
  • Occupational hazards – The risk of laryngeal cancer increases with exposure to asbestos, wood dust, sulfuric acid mist, nickel or manufacturing mustard gas.

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Signs and symptoms of laryngeal cancer

The most common sign of laryngeal cancer is persistent vocal hoarseness, which can be easily mistaken for a symptom of the common cold. Other symptoms can include:

  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A lump in the neck or throat
  • Difficulty making certain vocal sounds (dysphonia)
  • Noisy, high-pitched breathing (stridor)
  • Earache

Because there is currently no routine screening test available that can reliably detect laryngeal cancer, it is important to discuss these symptoms with a physician, especially if they last longer than two weeks. Additionally, it is important to seek immediate medical attention for emergency symptoms, which include:

  • Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
  • A sensation that something is lodged in the throat
  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)

Diagnosing laryngeal cancer

If laryngeal cancer is suspected based on the symptoms, a physician will typically perform a medical history review and examine the throat and neck. To confirm the diagnosis, the physician may also order:

  • Imaging – Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may reveal a tumor and help the physician assess its size and location, while positron emission tomography (PET) scans can highlight areas of rapid cellular activity.
  • Laryngoscopy – To visualize the larynx, a physician inserts a thin, flexible tube with a light and miniature camera at the end (endoscope) into the mouth and passes it down the throat. The physician then captures highly detailed images and views them on an external monitor.
  • Biopsy – To conclusively diagnose or rule out laryngeal cancer, a physician removes a small sample of suspicious tissue from the larynx for examination under a microscope. In addition to detecting cancerous cells, the examining pathologist can identify certain protein markers, which can help guide treatment.

Laryngeal cancer treatment

The treatment options for laryngeal cancer include:

  • Radiation therapy – A radiation oncologist uses an external machine (linear accelerator) to generate and precisely deliver high-energy beams to a tumor.
  • Chemotherapy – A medical oncologist develops a customized regimen of intravenous or oral medications to destroy cancerous cells or inhibit their growth.
  • Immunotherapy – Medications are delivered to boost the natural abilities of the body’s immune system and help it recognize, target and destroy cancerous cells.
  • Targeted therapy – Also known as precision medicine, targeted therapy involves the use of medications that home in on specific proteins that help cancer cells grow.
  • Surgery – To address early-stage laryngeal cancer, a surgeon may remove the tumor while preserving the function of the larynx. To address advanced laryngeal cancer, a surgeon may perform a laryngectomy to remove the entire larynx. Surgery may be followed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy to target any residual cancer cells and help prevent a recurrence.

The Moffitt Cancer Center difference for laryngeal cancer

Every day counts after a laryngeal cancer diagnosis. In addition to delivering nationally ranked care in new and transformative ways, the multispecialty team at Moffitt is committed to supporting our patients with compassionate care at every step of their journey.

If you would like to talk with a specialist in our Head and Neck Cancer Program, you do not need a referral. You can request an appointment by calling 1-888-663-3488 or submitting a new patient registration form online.