Occasional throat irritation may respond well to simple home remedies and rest. When throat problems include a significant change in voice and other recurring or worsening symptoms, however, it may be due to vocal cord cancer. Affecting the voice box (larynx), laryngeal cancer can be treated with medication, radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery. Prognosis depends on the location and size of the growth when the cancer is detected.
Signs of Vocal Cord Cancer
Other than vocal cord changes, initial signs that sometimes indicate vocal cord cancer include difficulty swallowing and hoarseness. Symptoms, which usually start off mild and become increasing persistent, may also include:
- Shortness of breath
- A noticeable neck mass
- Ear pain when the growth irritates specific nerves
Diagnosing Vocal Cord Cancer
Diagnosis of vocal cord cancer usually starts with an evaluation of symptoms and an examination of the throat. If cancer is suspected, testing often includes CT and PET scans and MRIs. A special camera may be used to visually examine the throat and vocal cords (laryngoscopy).
If a growth is detected, a biopsy is usually done. It’s a procedure that involves taking a tiny sample of the growth to examine it in detail to determine if it’s cancerous. A biopsy can be performed either traditionally in the hospital under general anesthesia or while the patient is awake. The latter procedure is more common today.
Patients with vocal cord cancer often respond better to a combination of treatments. With smaller forms of vocal cord cancer, minimally invasive surgery (involving no cutting) is often performed through the mouth with a laser. Recovery from this type of surgery is usually shorter since there is less healing involved.
With larger cancers, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are often performed simultaneously. Removal of the voice box (laryngectomy) is frequently necessary when the growth is more extensive. During the procedure, an incision is made in the neck to remove the voice box.
Radiation therapy can be used to treat both smaller and larger forms of vocal cord cancer. It’s typically performed daily for about six weeks.
How Surgery Affects the Voice
How surgery for vocal cord cancer affects the voice will depend on how much of the vocal cords have to be removed. Reconstructive surgery may be necessary to restore the voice. If a laryngectomy is performed, a “new” throat will be created surgically. Other alternatives to help restore the voice may also be used to allow the patient to effectively speak.
Vocal cord cancer is often linked to habits like excessive use of alcohol and tobacco products. Because voice changes are one of the first symptoms, laryngeal cancer may be detected in its early stages. Early detection of most forms of cancer increases the odds of experiencing positive results from treatments. Even when cancer isn’t the cause of voice problems, symptoms such as recurring throat irritations shouldn’t be ignored. Follow-up monitoring is often recommended after vocal cord cancer is treated.