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Laryngeal Cancer

Personalized Treatment | Research and Clinical Trials | Additional Patient Support

The larynx (voice box) is an organ in the throat that is between the back of the tongue and the trachea (windpipe). It regulates breathing, produces voice and helps protect the airway when swallowing. It is divided into three sections: the supraglottis (upper portion), the glottis (vocal cords, or middle portion) and the subglottis (the lower portion between the vocal cords and the trachea). Laryngeal cancer, a type of head and neck cancer, can develop in any part of the larynx, but the majority originate in the vocal cords or the supraglottis.

Patients who are ultimately diagnosed with laryngeal cancer usually exhibit one or more of the following symptoms (although many other non-cancerous diseases of the head and neck can also present with similar symptoms):

  • Voice changes
  • Difficulty and/or pain swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Extensive coughing
  • Lump in the neck or throat
  • Ear pain

Usually an otolaryngologist can look for laryngeal cancer by performing an examination of the head and neck, which often includes the use of a small camera to see deep into the throat. Additional radiographic imaging may also be needed. Ultimately, a biopsy of suspected laryngeal cancer is required for diagnosis. In contrast to what is commonly done, when indicated, our otolaryngologists can perform a diagnostic biopsy of the larynx right in the office, without the need for general anesthesia in an operating room. 

Vocal cord (glottic) cancer

Approximately one half of all laryngeal cancers start on one (or both) vocal cords. Because even small lesions on the vocal cords can produce significant changes in voice, a patient typically becomes aware of vocal cord cancer at an early stage. In many cases, hoarseness is the only symptom. This form of vocal cord cancer has a lower risk of metastasizing to other parts of the body than other types of laryngeal cancer, so treatment is often confined to the vocal cords themselves.

Treatment for early stage vocal cord cancers can include either radiation or surgery through the mouth using the state-of-the-art, voice sparing KTP laser. The unique properties of the KTP laser allow our head and neck surgeons to target the blood supply to vocal cord cancers, destroying the tumor while minimizing the removal of surrounding, non-cancerous vocal cord tissue, which may otherwise be excised with more conventional surgical techniques. This innovative technology has been shown to commonly result in vocal improvement, rather than degradation, in addition to successfully curing early stage vocal cord cancer.

Another unique aspect of Kellogg Cancer Center’s treatment of vocal cord cancer is our collaboration with voice pathologists in NorthShore’s Voice Center. In addition to helping rehabilitate voices, they routinely measure patient voices both before and after treatment, using advanced equipment capable of determining the acoustic and aerodynamic properties of the voice. This allows us to objectively track voice outcomes, which is a crucial metric in treating vocal cord cancer, and provides a growing database for research.

Supraglottic and Subglottic Cancer

In contrast to glottic cancer, laryngeal cancer originating in the areas above or below the vocal cords has a higher tendency to metastasize to the lymph nodes in the neck. Treatment may therefore be more extensive, often involving a combination of radiation, chemotherapy and/or surgery. Surgery for supraglottic or subglottic laryngeal cancers sometimes require an incision in the neck, but in other instances, it can be performed entirely through the mouth. We are currently one the few centers across the country with the technology to perform these surgeries using a new flexible robotic system, which allows our otolaryngologists to access and remove cancerous tissue in hard-to-reach areas of the larynx and other parts of the throat. This can speed recovery time and sometimes reduce or eliminate the need for radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

In cases in which laryngeal cancer has been treated but returns, NorthShore also offers immunotherapy treatment, which uses the body’s immune system to fight cancerous cells.

Personalized Laryngeal Cancer Treatment

Every week, our head and neck cancer team meets in a multidisciplinary conference to discuss each new laryngeal cancer patient’s case in detail and to design a personalized treatment plan.  This team consists of otolaryngologists (head and neck surgeons), radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, oncology nurses, speech pathologists, nutritionists and pharmacists. 

This "meeting of the minds" provides critical input, resulting in an individualized care plan outlining the best course of action for each patient. In addition, because many patients who suffer from laryngeal cancer smoke, a smoking cessation program is also part of the treatment plan.

Research and Clinical Trials

A vital research enterprise allows Kellogg patients access to the latest drugs and treatment options, as well as a wide array of clinical trials, both at NorthShore and through the University of Chicago, where more than 800 of our attending physicians hold academic appointments. NorthShore's team of laryngeal cancer experts are active participants and leaders in regional and national research, academic and advocacy organizations.

NorthShore’s nationally recognized Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system offers a data warehouse and tumor bank that enables physicians and researchers to integrate molecular and genomics data with clinical data to determine a patient’s best course of treatment. This information—specific to each patient—helps create an individually tailored treatment plan based on the patient’s genetic makeup and type of cancer. This analysis, through our Center for Biomedical Research Informatics, is yielding new insights into complex diseases and identifying opportunities to improve patient outcomes, as well as addressing the risk factors in individual and family medical histories.

NorthShore is the first in the nation to provide our patients and their family members with Health Heritage, a secure tool that helps individuals create a complete family health history and personalized risk reports.

Additional Patient Support

Kellogg Cancer Center’s unique services and resources assist laryngeal cancer patients and family members with a variety of challenges they may face from diagnosis, treatment and beyond. A wide array of support services are available to patients that include our integrative medicine servicesfinancial advocacy and survivorship, to name a few.

The Kellogg Cancer Center also offers a comprehensive tobacco cessation program for patients and their families.

For More Information

For more information about laryngeal cancer or to schedule an appointment with one of our oncologists, please call 847.570.2112.