Cancer of the larynx, also known as the voicebox, is a rare type of cancer which causes hoarseness or a change in pitch of voice and swelling of the throat. The larynx has three main jobs in the body: it helps to channel oxygen, it acts as a valve to stop food or water getting into the airways and contains the vocal cords. Symptoms include pain when swallowing, a sore throat, ear ache, a lump in the neck, coughing, weight loss and difficulty breathing. If these symptoms persist for longer than 3 weeks then it is advisable to visit your GP, but it is important to note that all these symptoms are the same for many other conditions, and therefore it is unlikely that they are caused by cancer.
Laryngeal cancer only affects around 1,700 people each year in England and Wales with around 80% of sufferers being male. Those over 50 are at a higher risk of developing this kind of cancer, along with people who smoke or drink heavily. In fact, it has been estimated that 75% of all cases are a direct result of tobacco and alcohol abuse. Recently, a link has been found between those with the condition and the human papilloma virus. Long term exposure to certain chemicals can also increase the risk of laryngeal cancer such as paint fumes, coal dust, wood dust, deisal fumes, nickel, formaldehyde, asbestos and isopropyl alcohol.
With nearly all cancers, treatment and prognosis is determined by the stage at which is has progressed by the time it is identified. In its early stage when it is confined to the larynx, the chance of being completely cured is quite high with 80% of people living for at least five years after diagnosis. However, if the cancer has spread to other parts of the body then this percentage is reduced to 60%.
Laryngeal cancer can be treated with radiotherapy alone if caught at an early stage, but if the cancer is more severe then chemotherapy and surgery may be needed. In the most severe cases a laryngectomy may be performed, which is the removal of the larynx. As a result, the vocal chords are also removed which will impair speech. However there are many treatments available to help with speech after having a laryngectomy, including voice prosthesis where an artificial valve in placed in the neck, oesophagael speech where you learn to push air through your gullet, and speech using an electropharynx, which is an electronic device you hold to your throat to speak. A permanent tracheostomy is needed after this operation as well which leaves a hole or stoma in the throat to allow the patient to breathe. This needs to be kept clean and away from water to prevent further complications.
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