Dr RV Raghunandan, Consultant – Radiation Oncologist, HCG MNR Cancer Centre, Ongole.
One of the many unique things that mark our individuality is our voice. Voice defines our identity but when the same starts to sound different, it becomes a matter of concern. What usually starts with a change or hoarseness in voice, can result in laryngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer affecting the larynx or the voice box. It can affect our ability to speak and can damage the voice while spreading to the other parts of body especially the lungs, if left untreated.
Identifying Symptoms of Laryngeal Cancer
Early diagnosis is crucial for cancer treatment and to stop the disease from progressing. In case of laryngeal cancer, the earliest noticeable symptom is change or hoarseness in voice. The other symptoms that must not be ignored are: Difficulty in breathing, persistent coughing, blood found in cough, pain in neck and ears, sore throat, difficulty in swallowing food, lumps found in neck, unexplained and sudden weight loss.
Neglecting the symptoms in the early stages can result in the growth of the cancer cells in the larynx or the voice box. This eventually leads to swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck, causing difficulty in breathing or sound while breathing. Thus, if any of the symptoms persist beyond a week, it is advisable to seek medical attention for an early diagnosis and treatment.
Causes and Risk Factors of Laryngeal Cancer
Usually, people around 40 years of age are at risk of suffering laryngeal cancer. Tobacco smoking or chewing and excessive to moderate alcohol consumption are the primary and most significant risk factors that increase the risk of developing this type of cancer. Even passive smoking can put a person at risk of developing laryngeal cancer.
Laryngeal cancer occurs when the healthy cells in the larynx are damaged and the cancerous cells begin to grow and can turn into tumors. Smoking increases the chances of mutation of these damaged cells.
Few other factors that increase the risk of developing cancer are Poor nutrition (lack of adequate fruits and vegetables, increased processed food consumption), exposure or HPV, Poor immunity, exposure to toxic elements such as asbestos, family history of cancer and genetic diseases.
Diagnosing Laryngeal Cancer
The voice box consists of two tissues parallelly and the movement of these tissues generate voice. After the potential symptoms of laryngeal cancer are analyzed including the medical history of the patient, an endoscopic evaluation is done with a video camera to diagnose the present condition of the voice box. It helps in finding out if the tumor has any additional growth or might have spread to the other parts of the body.
The results of the endoscopic study help in identifying the appropriate movements in the voice box tissues or if there are any other issues. Upon identifying the issues, a biopsy is performed to extract a small portion of the affected tissue from the larynx and is sent for further evaluation to check if there are any cancerous cells present in those tissues. Even a minute presence of cancerous growth is sent for further examination.
Treatment for Laryngeal Cancer
Treatment for laryngeal cancer depends on the stage and extent to which the cancerous cells have grown or spread. The ideal treatment to treat cancer in the voice box is through radiation in the early stages of cancer to kill the cancer cells, thus saving the healthy tissues and helping the patient regain their original voice.
If the patient needs surgery, the doctor may remove the tumor and the nearby lymph nodes and tissues through endoscopic resection or partial or total laryngectomy (surgical removal pf the larynx). Depending on the type of surgery done, the surgeon may do a partial or permanent tracheostomy to make a hole in the neck to promote healing and help in breathing after the surgery.
Chemotherapy is recommended in case the cancer has reached an advanced stage and where radiation and surgery have not been much effective.
In case of advanced stages of cancer, the patient may require a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
Due to surgical removal of a part or the entire voice box, the patient will have difficulties in speech. However, the same can be restored with artificial larynx (to create a way to send air to the mouth from the lungs). Speech therapy can also help. While the voice may not sound the same, procedures like these help in regaining the ability to talk.
Preventing Laryngeal Cancer
The best way to reduce the chances of developing laryngeal cancer is to eliminate consumption of tobacco and alcohol. Certain lifestyle changes can make a lot of difference in ceasing the progress of cancers in our bodies. Eating healthy, maintain a good immune system, exercising and managing stress can help us stay better and healthier. However, if any unexplained symptoms continue to persist, seek consultation from a medical expert immediately.