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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.

The larynx

The larynx, often called the voice box, is one of the organs helps us speak. It contains the vocal cords. It is found in the neck (see the picture below), above the opening to the windpipe (trachea). It helps keep food and fluids from going down the windpipe. The larynx has 3 main sections:

  • The supraglottis is the area above the vocal cords. It includes the epiglottis, which closes off when you swallow food.
  • The glottis is the area with the vocal cords.
  • The subglottis is the area below the vocal cords.

Cancers that start in different parts of the larynx are treated differently.

Your larynx and vocal cords have several functions:

  • The larynx makes 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 going into your lungs.
  • The vocal cords open on their own 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 the larynx. When foods and liquids are swallowed, they pass through the mouth and throat, through the hypopharynx and esophagus, and then into the stomach.

Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx

Cancers that start in the larynx are called laryngeal cancers; cancers of the hypopharynx are called hypopharyngeal cancers. Cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are both covered here because the 2 structures are so close to each other.

Squamous cell carcinomas

Almost all of the cancers in these areas start from the thin, flat cells (called squamous cells) that line the larynx and hypopharynx. Cancers that start in these cells are called squamous cell carcinomas or squamous cell cancers.

Most squamous cell cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx begin as pre-cancerous changes called dysplasia. Smoking and heavy alcohol drinking usually cause the changes. Most pre-cancers will not become cancers. If the causes (like smoking) stop, these pre-cancers most often go away. Most pre-cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx do not cause symptoms unless they are on the vocal cords.

Sometimes dysplasia will progress to a condition called carcinoma in situ (CIS). In CIS, only the cells of the top layer are affected. Cancer cells in CIS have not yet spread into lower layers of cells or spread to other parts of the body. Most can be cured, but if CIS is not treated it can develop into cancer that can spread into nearby tissue and to other parts of the body.

Other cancers

Other kinds of cancer can start in the larynx and hypopharynx. They include minor salivary gland cancers, sarcomas, and melanomas. These cancers are rare.

The rest of this information refers only to squamous cell cancer.

Last Medical Review: 04/08/2014
Last Revised: 02/17/2016