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 cancer starts and spreads, 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 is the voice box. It's one of the organs that helps us speak. It contains the vocal cords. It's 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 parts:

  • The supraglottis is just above the vocal cords. It contains the epiglottis, which is a flap that closes off the larynx when you swallow. This sends food down the esophagus (the tube that connects to the stomach) and keeps food and fluids from going into your lungs.
  • The glottis contains the vocal cords.
  • The subglottis is below the vocal cords.

Cancer that starts in the larynx (laryngeal cancer) is treated based on which section it starts in.

illustration showing location of the oropharynx, epiglottis, hypopharynx, esophagus and trache with a window showing more detailed view including the epiglottis, supraglottis, hypopharynx, esophagus, glottis (vocal cord), subglottis, thyroid cartilage and trachea

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 you swallow foods and liquids, they pass through your mouth and throat, through the hypopharynx and esophagus, and then into your stomach. The hypopharynx is made so that it 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 covered 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 start as a pre-cancer 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 Risk Factors for Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancers) Most pre-cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx do not cause problems unless they're on the vocal cord(s).

Sometimes dysplasia will progress to carcinoma in situ or CIS. CIS is the earliest form of cancer. In CIS, the cancer cells are only seen in the epithelium lining the larynx or hypopharynx. They haven't grown into deeper layers or spread to other parts of the body. Most of these early cancers can be cured, but if CIS isn't treated, it can develop into an invasive squamous cell cancer that will destroy nearby tissues and spread to other parts of the body.

Other cancers

Other rare types of cancer can also start in the larynx or hypopharynx.

Minor salivary gland cancers: Some parts of the larynx and hypopharynx have tiny glands called minor salivary glands beneath their lining layer. These glands make mucus and saliva to lubricate and moisten the area. Cancer rarely develops in the cells of these glands.

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.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Revised: November 27, 2017

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