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The voicebox (larynx)

The voicebox, or larynx, is tube-shaped and about 5cm (2in) long. It sits where the throat divides into the trachea (the windpipe that takes air to and from the lungs) and the esophagus (the tube that food goes down when you eat).

The larynx:

  • allows the air you breathe in to reach your lungs
  • has as a valve that closes to prevent food and drink from going into the windpipe when you swallow
  • contains the two vocal cords, which vibrate together when air passes between them to produce the sound of your voice.

The larynx can be seen or felt as the lump in the front of the neck known as the Adam’s apple. It has three main parts:

  • supraglottis – the area above the vocal cords
  • glottis – the area containing the vocal cords
  • subglottis – the area below the vocal cords

Types of laryngeal cancer

Most cancers of the larynx are squamous cell carcinomas.

This means the cancer starts in the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) of the lining of the larynx. There are also rarer types of laryngeal cancer including sarcomas, lymphomas, adenocarcinomas and neuroendocrine carcinomas.

This section covers treatment for squamous cell cancer of the larynx.

Causes and risk factors of cancer of the voicebox (larynx)

The exact cause of laryngeal cancer isn’t known, but certain risk factors can affect the chances of developing it. Having a risk factor for cancer doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get it. Some people with risk factors never develop cancer, and other people without any known risk factors can still develop it. Around 2,300 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer of the larynx each year. The main risk factors are smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol, but other factors can also increase your risk.This type of cancer is rare in people under 40. It’s more common in people in their 60s and 70s. It’s five times more common in men than in women.

Smoking

The longer a person smokes for and the more they smoke, the greater the risk of developing laryngeal cancer. You might find it helpful to see our information about giving up smoking.

Alcohol

Drinking a lot of alcohol, especially spirits, over a long period of time increases a person’s risk of getting laryngeal cancer. The risk is much higher for people who are both smokers and heavy drinkers.

Human papilloma virus (HPV) infection

This is a common virus, but certain types of the virus are linked with some cancers. It can affect the moist linings in the body, including those in the throat. We have more information about HPV and cancer.

Diet

Having a diet that’s high in animal fats and low in fresh fruit and vegetables may increase the risk of developing laryngeal cancer.

Family history

People who have a close relative (a parent, brother, sister or child) with cancer of the larynx have a slightly higher risk of developing it.

Acid reflux

Stomach acid can sometimes come back up the gullet (esophagus) and irritate or damage the gullet lining. This may also affect the larynx and increase the risk of cancer. It can occur when people have conditions such as gastro-esophageal reflux disease (GERD). As with other cancers, cancer of the larynx isn’t infectious and can’t be passed on to other people.

Symptoms of cancer of the voicebox (larynx)

Your symptoms will depend on where in the larynx the cancer is. Most cancers of the larynx begin on, or close to, one of the vocal cords.

Common symptoms include:

  • changes to your voice (such as hoarseness)
  • a swelling or lump in your neck or throat
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • earache that doesn’t get better
  • feeling breathless.

A change in your voice can be an early symptom of laryngeal cancer. If you’ve had hoarseness for more than three weeks, your PCP (family doctor) should refer you to a hospital for tests.

Less commonly, the first symptoms may be a lump in the throat or neck, or discomfort or pain when swallowing. This usually happens when the cancer starts in a part of the larynx that isn’t close to the vocal cords.

If you have any of the above symptoms, it’s important to let your PCP know. They can all be caused by other conditions, but it’s important to get them checked.

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