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Vocal Cord Cancer

Often presenting with changes in the voice, vocal cord cancer (laryngeal cancer) is a type of cancer affecting the larynx, or voice box. It's frequently linked to the regular use of tobacco products and excessive consumption of alcohol. Treatment depends on the size of the cancer and how far advanced it is when discovered.

Signs and Symptoms

Hoarseness, or a persistent sore throat and difficulty swallowing are among the initial signs of vocal cord cancer. Some patients may experience shortness of breath or once the cancer grows to a certain size. Additional symptoms may include a neck mass. Ear pain sometimes results if certain nerves are affected by the growth.

Diagnosis of Vocal Cord Cancer

Regardless of the type of laryngeal cancer, diagnosis typically involves a medical exam, evaluation of symptoms, and image scans, such as a CT or PET scan, or an MRI.

Laryngoscopy, a procedure in which a camera is used to view and examine the vocal cords and throat is performed to evaluate the anatomy and function of the larynx, or voice box. If a mass is identified, a biopsy, where a small piece of the growth is removed and analyzed, is then performed. Biopsy traditionally was performed in the operating room with the patient asleep. However, recent developments allow for biopsy to be performed in the office with the patient awake. Depending on the size of the growth at presentation, additional studies such as CT scans may be performed to further evaluate the cancer.

Treatment of Laryngeal Cancer

Prognosis of treatment depends on the size of the cancer. Smaller cancers have excellent responses to treatment.

The size and location of the cancer guide which treatment options are available. Smaller cancers can typically be removed in a surgery lasting about an hour through the mouth using a laser. This type of treatment is considered “minimally invasive” as there are no cuts on the neck made, and patients are able to return to normal function soon after surgery. The final voice after surgery is performed depends on how much of the vocal cord is removed. Occasionally, reconstructive surgery can be performed after the cancer is treated to optimize the voice.

Radiation therapy, in which treatment is given daily for six weeks, is also treatment for smaller cancers.

When cancers are larger, a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy is used to treat the cancer. Larger cancers are treated with removal of the voice box, performed with a cut on the skin through the neck. Laryngectomy is the name of this procedure in which the voice box is removed and a new throat is created for the individual.

Even in a laryngectomy, when the vocal cords are removed, alternative methods of voice production are utilized to allow individuals to speak and communicate with others.