People with laryngeal cancer can develop complications from the cancer itself or due to treatments they undergo for the disease.

Laryngeal cancer develops in the larynx in the front of the neck.

This article outlines some complications of untreated laryngeal cancer and discusses some possible complications of treatments for this condition.

It also offers guidance on helping prevent laryngeal cancer complications and outlines ways in which people with this disease can find support.

Finally, it answers some frequently asked questions about laryngeal cancer.

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Without treatment, laryngeal cancer can progress, causing complications.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), laryngeal cancers that form on the vocal cords may initially cause hoarseness or other changes to a person’s voice.

Laryngeal cancers that do not start on the vocal cords may cause vocal changes only once they have spread to this area.

Without treatment, laryngeal cancers can also spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, causing them to swell. This may lead to additional complications, such as breathing and swallowing difficulties.

According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS), treatment plans for laryngeal cancer typically involve one or more of the following:

  • surgery
  • chemotherapy
  • radiotherapy
  • targeted cancer treatments

Any of the above treatments could cause complications.

For example, the NHS notes that chemotherapy treatment can temporarily weaken the immune system, making a person more vulnerable to infection and illness.

However, this side effect should improve once a person has completed treatment.

Late or long-term effects

The United Kingdom charity Macmillan Cancer Support lists some of the late or long-term effects of laryngeal cancer treatment. These side effects can develop some time after a person has completed their treatment. Examples include:

  • Lymphedema: This refers to a buildup of fluid in the lymph nodes. People who undergo radiotherapy or surgical treatment for laryngeal cancer may develop lymphedema of the head and neck. Radiotherapy can damage the tiny lymph vessels that drain lymph fluid back into the bloodstream, while surgical removal of the lymph nodes prevents this drainage altogether. Lymphedema of the head and neck may cause the following issues:
    • swelling of the mouth or tongue
    • vocal changes
    • difficulty swallowing
  • Underactive thyroid: Radiotherapy to the larynx may disrupt the activity of the thyroid gland in the front of the neck, resulting in an underactive thyroid, which is known as hypothyroidism. This complication may occur many years after treatment, so doctors may recommend ongoing tests to check thyroid function. Symptoms of hypothyroidism include:
  • Difficulty swallowing: Laryngeal cancer treatments can cause the following issues, which may affect swallowing:
    • thickening and narrowing of the esophagus, or food pipe
    • damage to the muscles necessary for swallowing
    • loss of sensation when swallowing
  • Dental problems: Cancer treatments can cause a dry mouth, which increases the risk of dental decay

Below is some general guidance that may help prevent complications from laryngeal cancer treatment.

Before treatment

Before undergoing treatment for laryngeal cancer, a person can talk with a doctor or their treatment team about any potential side effects. Doctors can advise on the signs and symptoms to look for and what to do if such issues develop.

During treatment

According to Cancer Research UK, people who receive radiotherapy typically develop side effects within days of starting the treatment and may find that the side effects worsen following treatment. In most cases, these effects begin to resolve around 2 to 3 weeks later.

People who receive combined radiotherapy and chemotherapy may continue experiencing side effects for several months following their treatment. Again, these issues tend to resolve with time.

While side effects from cancer treatments are common, people need to notify a doctor as soon as soon as they develop. Some complications are much easier to treat if a person begins treatment immediately.

After treatment

People who receive treatment for laryngeal cancer may require ongoing monitoring to check for possible complications. Examples of such complications are below:

  • Preventing thyroid complications: People who have received surgery or radiotherapy for laryngeal cancer may require routine blood tests to check their thyroid function. Those with an underactive thyroid may require thyroid hormone replacement tablets to help prevent complications of hypothyroidism.
  • Preventing lymphedema complications: Swelling of the head or neck area could be a sign of lymphedema. This condition is easier to treat if a person receives a diagnosis and appropriate treatment soon after they notice symptoms. As such, anyone who develops such swelling needs to notify a doctor as soon as possible.
  • Preventing dental problems: People who have undergone treatment for laryngeal cancer receive regular dental checkups and cleaning every 3 to 6 months. They also need to follow a daily mouth care routine to prevent tooth decay and use fluoride products to help protect tooth enamel.

The ACS provides a range of support services for individuals living with cancer, including:

  • A 24/7 cancer helpline: Individuals living with cancer can phone 1-800-227-2345 for one-to-one support from a compassionate listener. The helpline can also put people in contact with a trained cancer specialist who can answer questions and provide guidance.
  • Lodging and transportation services: Some people may require transportation to hospital appointments or financial assistance for accommodation when receiving treatments farther from home. The ACS provides access to programs that can assist people needing such help.
  • A cancer survivor’s network: This online support network allows cancer survivors and carers of people with cancer to connect with people in similar situations and share their experiences.

Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about laryngeal cancer.

What is the outlook for those with laryngeal cancer?

The 5-year survival rate for laryngeal cancer is 61.5%. This means that 61.5% of people who receive a diagnosis of the disease will be alive 5 years after their initial diagnosis.

Where does laryngeal cancer spread?

According to the National Cancer Institute, laryngeal cancer may spread to nearby tissues, such as the thyroid, the esophagus, and the trachea (windpipe).

As laryngeal cancers progress, they may spread to more distant areas, such as the lymph nodes in the neck, the carotid artery, the chest, the upper section of the spinal column, and other parts of the body.

Laryngeal cancer can cause complications as a result of the disease itself or treatments for the condition.

Without treatment, laryngeal cancer may cause vocal changes and difficulties with breathing and swallowing. Treatments may cause other issues, some of which may be temporary, while others may be longer lasting.

Chemotherapy treatments may temporarily weaken the immune system, making a person more susceptible to infection and illness.

Radiotherapy treatments and surgical procedures to the head and neck may cause additional issues, some of which may develop many years after the treatment has finished. Examples include lymphedema, hypothyroidism, and dental disease.

Anyone who notices new symptoms following treatment for laryngeal cancer needs to notify a doctor as soon as possible. Some complications are much easier to treat if a person receives a prompt diagnosis and begins appropriate treatment immediately.