What Every Patient Should Know About Laryngeal Cancer
Laryngeal Cancer is a disease that causes cancerous cells to form in the tissues of the larynx, commonly known as the voice box.
The larynx is situated between the base of the tongue and the trachea (windpipe). It houses the vocal cords which are responsible for making a sound when air is passed through them. The sound echoes through the pharynx, nose, and mouth, giving human beings their voice.
Here are some of the things you should know about Laryngeal Cancer:
What Is Laryngeal Cancer and How Prevalent Is it in India?
Cancer in the larynx is one of the 10 leading causes of cancer-related deaths in India. Most Laryngeal Cancers happen in the squamous cells lining the insides of the larynx. It is a type of head and neck cancer and contributes to 3-6% of all cancers in men and about 0.2-1% in women.
How Does Laryngeal Cancer Affect the Voice?
The larynx has three essential functions - controlling the airflow while breathing, protecting the airway below it, and producing sound and speech. As cancerous cells grow, they block the airway and affect the muscles of the voice box. The voice box consists of upper and lower components, known as the supraglottic larynx that contains false vocal cords and supporting muscles, and the part that contains the true vocal cords, extending down to the top of the windpipe.
Cancer in the supraglottic larynx can cause trouble in swallowing and pain in the ear, leading to what’s known as “thick” speech or “hot potato”. While cancer in the lower part can cause a significant change in voice.
What Are the Risk Factors for Laryngeal Cancer?
- Tobacco and Alcohol Consumption: Smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol can greatly increase one’s risk of laryngeal cancer. Exposure to second-hand smoke for a long period of time also increases the risk of developing laryngeal cancer.
- Poor Nutrition in Diet: Research has shown that eating fewer fried and processed foods, and introducing more plant-based foods in your diet can reduce the risk of laryngeal cancer. It is also linked to vitamin deficiencies, thereby attributing alcohol as a major risk factor.
- Genetic Reasons: People with inherited gene defects are at greater risk of laryngeal cancer.
- Exposure to Chemicals: Long exposure to harmful chemicals and substances such as wood dust, paint fumes, and metals in the petroleum/plastics/textile factories can increase the chance of laryngeal cancer.
- Gender and Age: Laryngeal cancer is 4 times likely to affect males than females and can develop over many years. Men are more exposed to heavy drinking and smoking, thereby increasing their chances of being at risk. However, recent lifestyle changes have suggested women face similar threats from laryngeal cancer as well.
What are the Symptoms of Laryngeal Cancer?
Although Laryngeal Cancer can be difficult to detect in the early stages, here are some of the symptoms one should look out for:
- Hoarseness or change in the voice
- Dysphagia, or trouble swallowing
- Sudden weight loss
- Sore throat and a constant need to clear it
- Persistent cough, sometimes with signs of blood
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck and ear pain
How can Laryngeal Cancer be Diagnosed and Treated?
To diagnose laryngeal cancer, the doctor might perform a laryngoscopy on you. It’s a procedure to examine your larynx with a laryngoscope, a small device that looks into your voice box, or the larynx. If the laryngoscopy detects any abnormalities, the patient will be asked to undergo certain biopsies such as:
- Conventional biopsy, where the doctor removes a sample tissue with an incision
- Fine Needle Aspiration (FNA), where a thin needle is inserted directly in the tumour and remove sample cells
- Endoscopic biopsy, where an endoscope (a long thin tube) is inserted through your mouth or nose, or with an incision
Once diagnosed, the patient will be suggested treatment options ranging from surgery to radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Recovering from Laryngeal Cancer
A speech therapist helps patients relearn how to talk after their treatment for Laryngeal Cancer is done. Some patients may experience complications such as difficulty swallowing, disfigurement of the head and neck, skin hardening around the neck, and difficulty breathing and talking. For such instances, occupational therapy and reconstructive surgery may help get their lives back on track gradually.
How can you prevent Laryngeal Cancer?
You can lower your risk of developing Laryngeal Cancer by:
- Stopping smoking and alcohol consumption
- Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and diet with vitamin-rich foods and fruits
- Maintaining oral hygiene and visit a dentist for a checkup at regular intervals