Laser Surgery Preserves Larynx During Throat Cancer Treatment

April 11, 2005

C. Michael Haben, M.D., M.Sc.

When James White of Churchville lost his voice back in December, he figured it was a short-term case of laryngitis. Little did he know that without a new laser surgery, his voice box might have been removed.

White’s laryngitis was actually laryngeal cancer, which affects about 10,000 people each year in the United States.

The larynx is more commonly known as the voice box. It’s a two-inch, tube-shaped organ in the neck, which starts at the “Adam’s apple.” Air passes through the larynx as we breath and when we talk, the vocal cords inside the larynx close and vibrate, producing sound.

Until recently, standard treatment required high-dose radiation therapy.  If the radiation fails or the tumor comes back, the voice box is frequently removed, leaving patients to breathe permanently through a hole in their neck called a tracheostomy. 

University of Rochester Medical Center laryngologist C. Michael Haben, M.D., M.Sc., diagnosed White’s disease in March during laser surgery to remove a pea-sized tumor from his vocal cords.

He began performing this high-tech surgery -- the first of its kind in Rochester – last year. He uses microscopic digital imaging and the laser beam with pinpoint precision to remove tumors from this sensitive area. Some of the benefits of the laser surgery are that it can be repeated if the laryngeal cancer returns, it saves the voice box and is very precise.

Haben is the only board certified, fellowship-trained laryngologist in Upstate and Western New York. He trained under Wolfgang Steiner, M.D., who pioneered the laser surgery procedure in Germany.

White is grateful for the technology and looks forward to restoration of his voice in the next several months. Haben, director of the URMC Center for the Care of the Professional Voice, will help White regain his natural voice following the end of his treatment regimen.

“I’m glad to be on top of this cancer, rather than letting it get on top of me,” says White, who owns a construction business.

The otolaryngologists with URMC and the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center mark Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Week from April 11-18.

Laryngeal cancer, like many cancers of the head and neck region, is primarily caused by tobacco use. White smoked up to a pack a day for about 40 years, ignoring pleas from his wife, Joanne, to quit.  He did try a few times, but was finally successful shortly before his surgery last month.

White’s experience is very common, Haben says. Many times people are referred to him when their laryngitis doesn’t go away, or their voice becomes hoarse.  Those are the typical symptoms, as well as a lump in the neck, soar throat or persistent cough, bad breath and breathing difficulties.

Cancer of the larynx is most often diagnosed in people over 55 and is four times more common in men than women.  It is one of the top 10 cancers diagnosed in men and women.

For more information about the laser surgery, contact University Otolaryngology Associates at (585) 758-5700.

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Leslie White
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