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The larynx, also called the voice box or Adam's apple, is the part of the body that allows humans to produce sounds and speech. The larynx contains the vocal cords (glottis), which vibrate when air passes through. The epiglottis is a small flap of cartilage found at the top of the larynx. The epiglottis protects the airways by keeping food and saliva from going down the trachea (the "windpipe" tube that leads to the lungs).
Cancer of the larynx can occur on the glottis (most laryngeal cancers are there), the supraglottis (the area above the vocal cords that includes the epiglottis), or the subglottis (the area that connects the larynx to the trachea).
Cancer of the larynx affects more men then women, although more women are developing it today due to an increase in smoking in the female population.
Although the exact cause of cancer is unknown, some known risk factors for cancer of the larynx include:
The symptoms of laryngeal cancer depend on where in the larynx the tumour is located. Cancer on the vocal cords can often be detected early because the main symptom is hoarseness. Most people go hoarse from time to time, but if the hoarseness doesn't go away in two weeks, it should be checked.
Symptoms that the cancer has spread or is occurring in another part of the larynx include:
There are a few complications that can result from laryngeal cancer.
Airway obstruction: Any tumour or swelling in the airway can cause a blockage, making breathing difficult. If treatment involves total removal of the larynx, a tracheostomy (surgery to create an artificial airway in the trachea) is then performed to improve breathing.
Disfigurement: Removing the tumour and surrounding tissue could leave some disfigurement of the throat and neck. Muscles might be removed as well, making neck movement more difficult. If a tracheostomy was performed, the stoma (opening in the throat) is sometimes permanent.
Difficulty eating: After surgery, it may become difficult to swallow certain consistencies of food. Those undergoing radiotherapy may have trouble swallowing or even chewing. Chemotherapy can cause nausea and vomiting. A good, healthy diet is vital when recuperating from cancer, so it's important that adequate nutrition be maintained throughout the treatment.
Cancer spread: It's possible that the cancer may spread to other areas of the body.
Voice loss: Treatment that involves removing the entire larynx makes normal speech impossible. In this case, alternate methods of speaking need to be learned. These are:
While these new methods of speech are being learned, other ways of communicating will be needed. This might mean keeping a "magic slate" or pad and pencils easily available. It's important to plan ahead to help avoid frustration after surgery.