What is the Larynx?
The larynx is an organ located above the windpipe (trachea) that is responsible for functions such as speaking, breathing, and swallowing. The vocal cords are a part of the larynx, situated in the middle section. Cancers can develop in the vocal cords and in the areas above and below them, known as laryngeal cancers.
Laryngeal cancer is more commonly observed in males. Just as smoking increases the risk of lung cancer, it also raises the risk of laryngeal cancers.
What Are the Symptoms of Laryngeal Cancer?
Cancer in the larynx can cause various symptoms depending on where it develops within the larynx. If it occurs on the vocal cords, it can lead to hoarseness of the voice. If it develops above the vocal cords, it may cause difficulty in swallowing, and if below the vocal cords, it can result in breathing difficulties. Cancers on the vocal cords can be detected in the early stages because they quickly affect voice quality.
In upper region cancers, difficulty in swallowing may not develop until the cancer grows, and in lower region cancers, breathing difficulties may not manifest until the disease has progressed. Other symptoms that can occur in laryngeal cancer include neck swelling or lymph nodes, ear pain, persistent cough, and bad breath. Weight loss and signs related to other organs (due to cancer spreading) may be seen in advanced stages.
When Should I See an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) Specialist?
If symptoms such as hoarseness of the voice and others persist for more than 2-3 weeks, it is essential to consult an ENT specialist. The diagnosis of laryngeal cancer requires an examination of the larynx using a camera.
If there is a suspicious sore or lump in the larynx, imaging tests like computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered. To confirm the diagnosis of a sore or lump in the larynx, a small piece (biopsy) must be taken under general anesthesia, reaching the area through the mouth.
What Are the Treatment Options for Laryngeal Cancer?
For patients diagnosed with cancer following a biopsy, the main treatments are surgery or radiation therapy (radiotherapy). Chemotherapy can be applied as a supportive therapy alongside radiation therapy. Depending on the stage of laryngeal cancer, combined treatments, such as post-surgery radiation therapy, may also be used.
How Is Laryngeal Cancer Surgery Performed?
If laryngeal cancer is in its early stage, a portion of the larynx (partial laryngectomy) may be removed. In these cases, a temporary airway (tracheostomy) to the windpipe is created but can be closed within a few days after the surgery. In cases where laryngeal cancer is in an advanced stage, the entire larynx (total laryngectomy) may need to be removed, necessitating the creation of a permanent airway (tracheostomy) to allow for breathing.
Laser removal of laryngeal cancer is applicable in specific cases. In recent years, robot-assisted technologies have also been used in selected laryngeal cancer surgeries.
In laryngeal cancers with a high risk of spreading to the neck lymph nodes, neck dissection surgery is performed during the same session as laryngeal surgery. Tissues removed during these surgeries are examined under a microscope for further evaluation.
For patients with advanced laryngeal cancer where the entire larynx is removed (total laryngectomy), a permanent airway is established, allowing for breathing. After surgery, the ability to eat and the length of hospital stay can vary depending on the type of surgery performed. Patients who have had a portion of the larynx removed can still speak, although their voice may be affected. In cases where the entire larynx is removed, patients may undergo therapy and can potentially regain speech with the help of prosthetics or electronic devices.