Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers

THE LARYNX

The larynx, often called the “voice box,” is one of the organs that helps with speech. It contains the vocal cords. It is found in the neck. The larynx is often called the “Adam’s apple”

The larynx has 3 main sections: 
  • the glottis (vocal cords)
  • the supraglottis (area above the vocal cords, including the epiglottis, which closes off when you swallow food)
  • the subglottis (the area below the vocal cords)
Cancers that start in different parts of the larynx are treated differently.

The larynx and vocal cords sit above the trachea at the entrance to the lungs. The larynx makes sound for speaking and protects the airway during swallowing. The vocal cords change the sound and pitch of the voice. They close tightly when a person swallows and open to allow breathing.

THE HYPOPHARYNX

Cancer can also affect the hypopharynx which surrounds the larynx. It is part of the esophagus or swallowing tube. Food enters the esophagus here then passes through the neck and chest into the stomach.

CANCERS IN THESE 2 AREAS

Cancers that start in the larynx are called laryngeal cancers; cancers of the hypopharynx are called hypopharyngeal cancers. Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are both covered here because they are so close to each other. Several types of cancer form in these 2 areas.

Squamous cell carcinomas

Almost all of these cancers start from the thin, flat cells (squamous cells) that line the larynx and hypopharynx. Squamous cell cancer does not form suddenly. It starts when the cells begin to change. Smoking and heavy alcohol drinking usually cause the changes. The cells become pre-cancers. Most pre-cancers will not become cancers. If the causes (like smoking) stop, these pre-cancers usually go away.

But some pre-cancers do grow into cancers. The earliest form of cancer is called carcinoma in situ or CIS. This is where only the cells of the lining layer are affected. In situ is a Latin term that means “in place.” CIS has not yet spread into lower layers of cells or spread to other parts of the body. Some of these very early cancers go away on their own. Most can be cured by stripping or cutting away the lining layer of cells, or by destroying them with a laser beam. If CIS is not treated it can develop into cancer that can spread into nearby tissue and to other parts of the body.

Other cancers

Other kinds of cancer can start in the glands and tissue of the larynx and hypopharynx. They include adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma, chondrosarcomas and synovial sarcomas. These cancers are very rare.