Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer Overview

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Treating Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer TOPICS

Radiation therapy for laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers

Radiation therapy is treatment with high energy rays (such as x-rays) to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. The radiation may come from outside the body (external radiation) or from radioactive materials placed directly in the tumor.

External radiation is often the main treatment for small laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers. It may be used after surgery for larger cancers to try to kill any cancer cells that may have been left behind. It is also used for patients whose health does not permit them to have surgery. Radiation can be used to ease symptoms such as pain, bleeding, swallowing problems, and problems caused by spread of cancer to the bones.

Often chemotherapy is given with the radiation.

Getting radiation therapy is a lot like getting an x-ray, but the radiation is much stronger. Treatment is not painful. Each treatment lasts only a few minutes, although the setup time — getting you into place for treatment — usually takes longer.

Treatment is usually given daily, 5 days per week, for several weeks. There are several different types and schedules of radiation that might be used. Some show promise in lowering the risk of the cancer coming back in the place where it started or helping patients live slightly longer. The drawback is that patients may also have more severe side effects.

Possible side effects of radiation

Many people treated with radiation to the neck and throat area have problems with painful sores in the mouth and throat. These sores can make eating and drinking very hard and can lead to weight loss. The sores heal with time after the radiation has stopped.

Side effects from radiation can also include:

  • Skin problems (something like sunburn)
  • Dry mouth (which can lead to problems with tooth decay)
  • Worsening of hoarseness
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Loss of taste
  • Breathing problems from swelling of the larynx
  • Tiredness

Most of these side effects go away after treatment is over. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you are having trouble with any side effects. There are often ways to help.

Radiation can worsen any tooth problems that you might already have. Based on the radiation plan and the health of your teeth, some or all of them may have to be removed before treatment begins.

Radiation aimed near the salivary glands may cause long-term damage, leading to dry mouth that does not get better with time. A dry mouth can affect swallowing and also cause tooth decay. People with dry mouth after radiation must be very careful about their oral health.

When radiation is used as the main treatment for cancer of the larynx, it may very rarely lead to breakdown of the cartilage. If this happens, the patient may need surgery.

To learn more, see our document, Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 01/22/2013
Last Revised: 01/22/2013