Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer: Introduction

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

ON THIS PAGE: You will find some basic information about these diseases and the parts of the body they may affect. This is the first page of Cancer.Net’s Guide to Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer. Use the menu to see other pages. Think of that menu as a roadmap for this entire guide.

About the larynx

The larynx, commonly called the voice box, is a tube-shaped organ in the neck. The larynx is important for breathing, talking, and swallowing. It is located at the top of the trachea, also called the windpipe. During breathing, the larynx opens like a valve to allow air to pass from the throat through the trachea and into the lungs.

The larynx contains the vocal folds, also called vocal cords, which vibrate to make sound for speech production. During swallowing, the vocal folds come together and, with a flap of tissue called the epiglottis, protect the airway and prevent food and liquids from entering the lungs.

There are 3 parts of the larynx:

  • Glottis. The middle section that holds the vocal folds.

  • Supraglottis. The area above the vocal folds.

  • Subglottis. The area below the vocal folds that connects the larynx to the windpipe.

Go to the Medical Illustrations page to see a drawing of these structures.

About the hypopharynx

The hypopharynx, also called the gullet, is the lower part of the throat. It surrounds the larynx. The pharynx, more commonly known as the throat, is a hollow tube about 5 inches long. It starts behind the nose, which is a region called the nasopharynx, and ends at the level of the larynx, a region called the laryngopharynx. The pharynx leads into the esophagus, which is the tube that goes to the stomach.

About cancer in the larynx or hypopharynx

Cancer can develop in any part of the larynx or hypopharynx. Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow locally but will not spread.

About 95% of all cancers of the larynx and hypopharynx are categorized as squamous cell carcinoma. This means they began in the flat, squamous cells that form the linings of these organs.

Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancers are 2 of the main types of cancer in the head and neck region, a grouping called head and neck cancer. This section covers both laryngeal cancer and hypopharyngeal cancer because their treatments are often similar. However, these are 2 separate types of cancer.

Looking for More of an Introduction?

If you would like more of an introduction, explore these related items. Please note that these links will take you to other sections on Cancer.Net:

The next section in this guide is Statistics. It helps explain the number of people who are diagnosed with laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer and general survival rates. Use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.