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 people who aren’t healthy enough for 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. This causes more side effects, though.

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 often given once a day, 5 days per week, for several weeks. For some cancers, it is given twice a day.

Possible side effects of radiation

Side effects from radiation can also include:

  • Skin problems – ranging from redness to blisters and peeling
  • Painful sores in the mouth and throat- this often leads to trouble eating and drinking and losing weight
  • 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
  • Low blood counts

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 the “Radiation Therapy” section of our website, or our document Understanding Radiation Therapy: A Guide for Patients and Families.

Last Medical Review: 04/08/2014
Last Revised: 01/13/2015