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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 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 in to reach 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 mouth, larynx, windpipe (trachea), and then into your lungs.

When you swallow, 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 the epiglottis is closed, food and drink can go down your food pipe (oesophagus) and into your stomach.

The vocal cords are two bands of muscle that form a V shape inside the larynx. These vibrate together when air passes between them. This produces the sound of 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 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 space just behind the larynx. The pharynx is the space that connects the back of the nose to the windpipe. There are 3 parts to the hypopharynx. These are the:

  • piriform sinus
  • posterior pharyngeal wall
  • postcricoid pharynx

Hypopharyngeal cancers most commonly develop in the part called the piriform sinuses. This is the space behind the larynx.

The hypopharynx helps push food into the foodpipe and not into the windpipe when we swallow. Cancer can develop in the hypopharynx.

The symptoms are 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

The area around the larynx contains lymph nodes. These are also called lymph glands. They are small bean shaped glands. 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.

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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