Laryngeal Cancer

Introducing larynx and hypopharynx 

What is the larynx?

The larynx (or voice box) is an organ in the front of the neck. The larynx is made up of cartilage (a firm tissue), muscles and ligaments which move to make different sounds and protect your lungs when swallowing.

The cartilage in front of the larynx is sometimes called the Adam’s apple.

The larynx has three parts which doctors may refer to when describing where a cancer is located within the larynx:

  • upper (supraglottis): the area from the epiglottis down to the vocal cords at the top of the larynx. The epiglottis is responsible for protecting the lungs when swallowing foods and liquids.

  • middle (glottis): this area contains the vocal cords which open when breathing, and close when talking and swallowing.

  • lower (subglottis): the area below the vocal cords where the larynx joins the trachea (or windpipe). The trachea links the larynx to the lungs.

Behind and around the larynx is a horseshoe shaped area called the hypopharynx. The hypopharynx directs food into the oesophagus ( or food pipe). The larynx, hypopharynx and oesophagus all work together to make sure food is directed to the stomach when you swallow. If they are not working together properly, food can enter the lungs, causing a chest infection, and known as aspiration.

What does the larynx do? 

The larynx does three important things, it: 

  • allows air to pass into the lungs when you breathe

  • makes the sound of your voice so you can talk and sing by vibrating the vocal cords

  • has a flap (epiglottis) which works together with the vocal cords to close the larynx when swallowing to prevent food and drinks from going down the wrong path and entering the lungs.

The larynx, hypopharynx and oesophagus all work together to make sure food and drinks are directed to the stomach when you swallow. The epiglottis and the vocal cords close tightly when you swallow, blocking food entering the windpipe. The laryngeal muscles and nerves control the vocal cords and the swallowing action and may be damaged by cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx. 

Introducing larynx and the surrounding areas