What are laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers?
Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers start in the lower part of the throat. Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?
To understand these cancers, it helps to know a little about the larynx and hypopharynx.
What is the larynx?
The larynx, often called the voice box, is one of the organs that helps us speak. It contains the vocal cords. It is in the neck, above the opening of the trachea (windpipe). There, it helps keep food and fluids from entering the trachea. The larynx is divided into 3 sections:
- The supraglottis is the area above the vocal cords. It contains the epiglottis, which closes off the larynx when you swallow to keep food and fluids from going into your lungs.
- The glottis is the area containing the vocal cords.
- The subglottis is the area below the vocal cords.
Cancer that starts in the larynx (laryngeal cancer) is treated differently based on which section it starts in.
Your larynx and vocal cords have several functions:
- The larynx produces sound for speaking. The vocal cords move and come together to change the sound and pitch of your voice.
- The larynx protects your airway when you swallow. The epiglottis and vocal cords close tightly when you swallow to keep food and fluids from entering your lungs.
- The vocal cords open naturally when you breathe so that air can get in and out of your lungs.
What is the hypopharynx?
The hypopharynx is the part of the throat (pharynx) that lies beside and behind your larynx. The hypopharynx is the entrance into the esophagus (the tube that connects the throat to the stomach). When foods and liquids are swallowed, they pass through the mouth and throat, through the hypopharynx and esophagus, and then into the stomach. The structure of the hypopharynx helps make sure that food goes around the larynx and into the esophagus.
Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx
Cancers that start in the larynx are called laryngeal cancers. Cancers that start in the hypopharynx are called hypopharyngeal cancers. Both types of cancers are discussed here because these 2 structures are so close to each other.
Squamous cell carcinomas
Almost all cancers in the larynx or hypopharynx develop from thin, flat cells called squamous cells, which are in the epithelium, the innermost layer lining these 2 structures. Cancer that starts in this layer of cells is called squamous cell carcinoma or squamous cell cancer.
Most squamous cell cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx begin as a pre-cancerous condition called dysplasia. When seen under a microscope, these cells look abnormal but not quite like cancer cells. Most of the time, dysplasia doesn’t turn into cancer. It often goes away without any treatment, especially if the underlying cause (like smoking) is stopped. (See “What are the risk factors for laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers?”) Most pre-cancerous conditions of the larynx and hypopharynx do not cause symptoms unless they are on the vocal cord(s).
Sometimes dysplasia will progress to a condition called carcinoma in situ (CIS). In CIS, the cancer cells are only seen in the epithelium lining the larynx or hypopharynx. They have not grown into deeper layers or spread to other parts of the body. CIS is the earliest form of cancer. Most of these early cancers can be cured, but if CIS is not treated, it can develop into an invasive squamous cell cancer that will destroy nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.
Other rare types of cancer can also start in the larynx or hypopharynx.
Minor salivary gland cancers: Some areas of the larynx and hypopharynx have tiny glands known as minor salivary glands beneath their lining layer. These glands make mucus and saliva to lubricate and moisten the area. Cancer rarely develops from the cells of these glands, but when it does, these cancers have names such as:
- Adenoid cystic carcinoma
- Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
These cancers are discussed in Salivary Gland Cancers.
Sarcomas: The shape of the larynx and hypopharynx depends on a framework of connective tissues and cartilage. Cancers like chondrosarcomas or synovial sarcomas can develop from connective tissues of the larynx or hypopharynx, but this is extremely rare.
Melanomas: These cancers usually start in the skin, but in rare cases they can start on inner (mucosal) surfaces of the body, such as in the larynx or hypopharynx.
These rare cancers of the larynx or hypopharynx are not discussed further here. The rest of this information refers only to squamous cell cancer.
Last Medical Review: 04/08/2014
Last Revised: 02/17/2016