Vocal cord cancer, also called laryngeal cancer, affects the cartilage and muscles in the voice box. If laryngeal cancer is not treated quickly, it may damage the voice and spread to other parts of the body.
Signs of laryngeal cancer are typically easy to detect; they include:
- Hoarse voice
- Difficulty breathing
- Excessive coughing
- Cough with blood
- Neck pain
- Sore throat
- Ear pain
- Difficulty swallowing food
- Swollen neck
- Neck lumps
- Sudden weight loss
Laryngeal cancer may be caused by:
- Heavy alcohol consumption
- Poor nutrition
- Immune system problems
- Exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Workplace exposure to toxins, such as asbestos
- Certain genetic diseases, such as Fanconi anemia
Individuals are at increased risk of developing laryngeal cancer if they:
- Chew tobacco
- Eat a poor diet
- Drink alcohol
- Have a family history of throat cancer
- Have been exposed to asbestos
When to Consult a Doctor
If symptoms of laryngeal cancer last longer than one week, then patients should schedule a visit to their physician’s office.
Diagnosing Vocal Cord Cancer
During an initial visit the physician will examine the patient’s symptoms and review their medical history. The physician will usually perform a laryngoscopy by using either a small scope or a series of mirrors to examine the larynx.
If the doctor notices anything unusual, they will perform a biopsy and send the tissue sample to a laboratory for examination. Imaging tests, such as CT or MRI scans, aren’t usually necessary to diagnose laryngeal cancer, but may help the physician see if the cancer has spread.
Stages of Laryngeal Cancer
The stage of the laryngeal cancer is determined using the TNM system:
- T refers to the size of the primary tumor and if it has spread
- N is used to identify how far the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes
- M indicates whether the cancer has metastasized or spread to other organs or more distant lymph nodes
Tumors that have metastasized or spread to the lymph nodes are more advanced and difficult to treat.
Patients with laryngeal cancer in the earliest stages may benefit from radiation therapy or surgery. The risks of surgery to treat laryngeal cancer include:
- Difficulty breathing and swallowing
- Neck disfigurement
- Permanent neck scars
- Loss or change of voice
Radiation therapy may be performed after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
Chemotherapy is another option for destroying remaining cancer cells after surgery and radiation, treating advanced cancer along with radiation when surgery isn’t an option, and treating symptoms of inoperable advanced cancers.
Recovering the Voice
Patients who have lost part or all of their voice box as a result of surgery may benefit from speech therapy. Some patients may learn esophageal speech, which is a method of swallowing air and sending it back up through the mouth in order to produce sound.
A tracheoesophageal puncture involves connecting the windpipe and food pipe with a stoma. A valve is placed at the front of the throat and the patient is able to speak when they cover the valve with their finger.
Other patients may use an electrolarynx, which is an electrical device that creates a mechanical voice.