What is Vocal Cord Cancer?
Most cancer experts agree that vocal cord cancer likely starts as small areas of abnormal cells (dysplasia) that undergoes sequential changes that ultimately leads to the development of cancer. Pre-cancerous lesions may appear as a white or red plaque (called leukoplakia or erythroplakia) on the vocal cord, and indicate that a biopsy or removal of the lesion needs to be done to rule-out the presence of cancer. Research suggests that removing pre-cancerous lesions reduces the risk of developing cancer.
An estimated 10,000 cases of vocal cord cancer are diagnosed each year. Vocal cord cancer is very closely linked with a history of smoking. Symptoms of vocal cord cancer tend to occur very early since cancer on the vocal cords causes voice changes soon after a lesion develops.
What are the symptoms of Vocal Cord Cancer?
Symptoms of vocal cord cancer include:
Sensation of something stuck in throat
Trouble swallowing with associated weight loss
The appearance of one or more lumps that can be felt in the neck
Vocal Cord Cancer Treatment
Most patients will have concerning lesions biopsied during an in-office visit. If the results indicate a pre-cancerous lesion only, your treatment team will discuss the best follow-up plan for you, which may include serial excisions over time to ensure that a cancer is not forming. If the results of a biopsy indicate cancer, more aggressive treatment is often needed.
The goal of vocal cord cancer treatment is to completely remove or kill the cancerous growth while preserving as much normal tissue and function as possible. The treatment recommendation will often vary depending on the location and size of the tumor. Treatment options include:
Surgery – This seeks to completely remove the cancerous growth while preserving as much normal tissue as possible. Removing portions or all of a vocal cord can have profound effects on voice and swallowing. This can often be performed through the mouth with a laser (minimally invasive), but occasionally an open surgery through the neck is needed.
Radiation therapy – This treatment is designed to kill the cancerous cells while limiting radiation exposure to normal surrounding tissue as much as possible. While radiation treatment technology has dramatically improved over the years, doses of radiation needed for definitive treatment of a vocal cord cancer can still sometimes lead to long-term voice and swallowing problems.
In general, chance of cure with early vocal cord cancer is roughly equivalent whether surgery or radiation is used. Your treatment team, working with a radiation oncologist, will help you decide which treatment option is best for you.