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Laryngeal Cancer Information

What is Laryngeal Cancer?

The larynx, also called the voice box, is a 2-inch-long, tube-shaped organ in the neck. We use the larynx when we breathe, talk, or swallow. The larynx is at the top of the windpipe (trachea). Its walls are made of cartilage. The large cartilage that forms the front of the larynx is sometimes called the Adam's apple. The vocal cords, two bands of muscle, form a "V" inside the larynx.

Each time we inhale (breathe in), air goes into our nose or mouth, then through the larynx, down the trachea, and into our lungs. When we exhale (breathe out), the air goes the other way. When we breathe, the vocal cords are relaxed, and air moves through the space between them without making any sound.

When we talk, the vocal cords tighten up and move closer together. Air from the lungs is forced between them and makes them vibrate, producing the sound of our voice. The tongue, lips, and teeth form this sound into words.

The esophagus, a tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach, is just behind the trachea and the larynx. The openings of the esophagus and the larynx are very close together in the throat. When we swallow, a flap called the epiglottis moves down over the larynx to keep food out of the windpipe.

Like all other organs of the body, the larynx is made up of cells. Normally, cells divide to produce more cells only when the body needs them. This orderly process helps keep us healthy.

If cells keep dividing when new cells are not needed, a mass of extra tissue forms. This mass of tissue, called a growth or tumor, can be benign or malignant.

  • Benign tumors are not cancerous. They do not spread to other parts of the body and are seldom a threat to life. Benign tumors can usually be removed, but certain types may return.

  • Malignant tumors are cancerous. They can invade and destroy nearby healthy tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also break away from the tumor and enter the bloodstream and the lymphatic system. That is how cancer spreads to other parts of the body. This spread is called metastasis.

Cancer of the larynx is also called laryngeal cancer. Laryngeal cancer can develop in any region of the larynx--the glottis (where the vocal cords are), the supraglottis (the area above the cords), or the subglottis (the area that connects the larynx to the trachea).

If laryngeal cancer spreads outside of the larynx, it usually goes first to the lymph nodes (sometimes called lymph glands) in the neck. Laryngeal cancer can also spread to the back of the tongue, other parts of the throat and neck, the lungs, and sometimes other parts of the body.

Cancer that spreads is the same disease and has the same name as the original (primary) cancer. When cancer of the larynx spreads, it is called metastatic laryngeal cancer.

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