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What is laryngeal cancer?

Laryngeal cancer is when cancer starts in the voice box (larynx). It is a rare type of head and neck cancer. 

The larynx

The larynx, which includes your vocal cords, is another name for the voice box. It’s a tube about 2 inches (5cm) long in adults. It sits above the windpipe (trachea) in the neck and in front of the food pipe. The food pipe in the upper part of the neck is called the pharynx.

The larynx:

  • protects your windpipe during swallowing
  • allows the air you breathe to pass in and out of the lungs
  • produces sound for speaking

The larynx is the place in your body where the breathing and digestive systems separate. When you breathe in, air travels through your nose and/or mouth, larynx, windpipe (trachea), and then into your lungs.

When you swallow, your vocal cords close and a part of the larynx called the epiglottis closes tightly over your airway. This flap of cartilage stops food and saliva going into your lungs when you swallow.  Swallowing allows the food into the lower part of your food pipe (oesophagus) and into your stomach.

The vocal cords are two bands of cartilage and muscle which are attached at the front. On speaking or breathing the vocal cords move together and apart, protecting the airway when the come together in the midline and allowing air to pass freely when they are apart.

Different sizes in the gap between the vocal cords, gives different sounds which can be used by your mouth, tongue and lips to make your voice.

Parts of the larynx

The larynx is made of several pieces of a smooth, shiny tissue called cartilage. The cartilage is surrounded by fibrous tissue. The largest cartilage of the larynx is the thyroid cartilage, which forms the Adam’s apple. This is the lump in the front of your neck. This is often much easier to see in men than women. The proper name for this is the thyroid cartilage.

There are 3 main parts to the larynx. These parts are the:

  • supraglottis - the area above the vocal cords that contains the epiglottis cartilage
  • glottis - the area of the vocal cords
  • subglottis - the part below the vocal cords, containing the cricoid cartilage that continues down into the windpipe

 Cancer can develop in any or all of these parts of the larynx.

Diagram of the larynx

The hypopharynx

The hypopharynx is at the lower end of the pharynx. It is the part of the food pipe that sits immediately behind and to the side of the larynx. It connects the mouth and back of the nose to the windpipe. There are 3 parts to the hypopharynx. These are the:

  • right and left piriform sinuses
  • posterior pharyngeal wall
  • postcricoid region

Cancers can occur in any part of the hypopharynx but most commonly develop in the piriform sinuses. These are v-shaped found on either side of the larynx. 

The symptoms may be similar to the symptoms of laryngeal cancer. And the treatment is also often the same which is why we have included the information here.

Diagram showing the parts of the pharynx

The lymph nodes

There are lots of lymph glands throughout the body but there are particularly more in the neck area. These are also called lymph nodes. Normal lymph nodes are small and round or bean shaped glands, which are less than 1cm long. 

They are part of the lymphatic system which runs throughout the body. The lymphatic system is filled with fluid called lymphatic fluid.

The lymph glands help to control infection by filtering anything foreign to the body, out in the lymphatic fluid. This includes bacteria and viruses.

When anything foreign enters the body, a normal immune response causes the lymph node to increase in size and become hot, red and tender.

Diagram showing the position of the lymph nodes in the neck

The lymph nodes are often the first place that cancer cells reach when they break away from a tumour. So surgeons often remove them and examine them closely to see if they contain any cancer cells. They use this information to stage the cancer and make treatment decisions. 

How common it is

Laryngeal cancer is rare. Around 2,400 people are diagnosed in the UK each year.

Who gets it

Laryngeal cancer is more common in men than in women. It is diagnosed in more than 5 times as many men as women.

As with most cancers, laryngeal cancer is more common in older people than in younger people. There are very few cases in people under 40 years of age.

Last reviewed: 
11 Jun 2018
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