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Airway Tumors

By Anne S. Tsao, MD, Associate Professor and Director, Mesothelioma Program; Director, Thoracic Chemo-Radiation Program, University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

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Patient Education

The airway can be affected by primary tracheobronchial tumors, primary tumors that are adjacent to and invade or compress the airway, or cancers that metastasize to the airway.

Primary tracheal tumors are rare (0.1/100,000 people). They are often malignant and found at a locally advanced stage. The most common malignant tracheal tumors include adenoid cystic carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, carcinoid, and mucoepidermoid carcinomas. The most common benign airway tumor is a squamous papilloma, although pleomorphic adenomas and granular cell and benign cartilaginous tumors also occur.

Symptoms and Signs

Patients often present with

  • Dyspnea

  • Cough

  • Wheezing

  • Hemoptysis

  • Stridor

Hemoptysis may occur with a squamous cell carcinoma and can potentially lead to earlier diagnosis, whereas wheezing or stridor occurs more often with the adenoid cystic variant. Dysphagia and hoarseness can also be present initially and usually indicate advanced disease.


  • Bronchoscopic biopsy

Symptoms of airway narrowing (eg, stridor, dyspnea, wheezing) can herald life-threatening airway obstruction. An airway tumor should be considered a possible cause if such symptoms are unexplained, are of gradual onset, are associated with other symptoms of airway tumors (eg, unexplained hemoptysis), and respond poorly to standard treatments (eg, if asthma treatments do not relieve wheezing).

If an airway tumor is suspected, patients require immediate evaluation with bronchoscopy. Bronchoscopy can both treat airway obstruction and allow specimens to be obtained for diagnosis. If cancer is found, more extensive testing for staging is done.


Prognosis depends on the histology.

Squamous cell carcinomas tend to metastasize to regional lymph nodes and directly invade mediastinal structures, leading to high local and regional recurrence rates. Even with definitive surgical resection, the 5-yr survival is only 20 to 40%.

Adenoid cystic carcinomas are typically indolent but tend to metastasize to the lungs and to spread perineurally, leading to high recurrence rates after resection. However, these patients have a higher 5-yr survival of 60 to 75% because of the slow rate of growth.


  • Surgery

  • Sometimes radiation therapy

  • Obstruction reduction techniques

Primary airway tumors should be treated definitively with surgical resection if possible. Tracheal, laryngotracheal, or carinal resections are the most common procedures. Up to 50% of the length of the trachea can be safely resected with primary reanastomosis. If a lung or thyroid cancer invades the airway, surgery is sometimes still feasible if assessment indicates sufficient tissue is available for airway reconstruction. Adjuvant radiation therapy is recommended if adequate surgical margins cannot be obtained.

Most primary airway tumors are not resectable because of metastasis, locally advanced stage, or patient comorbidities. In cases of endoluminal tumors, therapeutic bronchoscopy can mechanically core-out the tumor. Other techniques to eliminate obstruction include laser vaporization, photodynamic therapy, cryotherapy, and endobronchial brachytherapy. Tumors that compress the trachea are treated with airway stenting, radiation therapy, or both.

Key Points

  • Primary tracheal tumors are rare, often malignant, and commonly locally advanced when recognized.

  • Suspect airway tumors in patients with gradual, unexplained, or intractable dyspnea, cough, wheezing, hemoptysis, and stridor.

  • Treat with local resection or, if resection is not indicated, other locally destructive therapies.