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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

The windpipe (trachea), throat (pharynx), and voice box (larynx) can develop tumors that either grow into the structures or press on them, blocking breathing. Tumors from elsewhere in the body may also spread to these areas (metastasis).

Tumors that develop in the trachea are rare. They are often cancerous (malignant) and found at a locally advanced stage (having spread to nearby tissue or lymph nodes).

The most common malignant tracheal tumors include squamous cell carcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, carcinoid tumors, and mucoepidermoid carcinomas.

The most common noncancerous (benign) airway tumor is a squamous papilloma, although other benign conditions can also occur.


Symptoms of airway tumors include

  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)

  • Coughing

  • Coughing up blood (hemoptysis)

  • Wheezing or other abnormal breathing noises

Difficulty swallowing and hoarseness can also be present.


  • Bronchoscopy

Doctors may consider an airway tumor if symptoms develop gradually and if standard treatments are ineffective, for example, if drugs used to treat asthma do not relieve wheezing. If an airway tumor is suspected, doctors do bronchoscopy. Bronchoscopy can both relieve airway blockage and allow specimens to be obtained for diagnosis. If cancer is found, more extensive testing for staging is done.


Prognosis depends on the type of cancer. Cancers that spread to lymph nodes in the neck or chest or that grow into nearby structures tend to have a worse prognosis.


  • Surgery

  • Radiation therapy

  • Obstruction reduction techniques

Certain types of airway tumors should be removed surgically if possible. In other cases, radiation therapy with or without chemotherapy or targeted therapies is recommended.

If surgery is not possible, certain less invasive procedures can be used to remove some of the tumor. Laser vaporization, photodynamic therapy, cryotherapy, and endobronchial brachytherapy are options to remove tumor blocking an airway. If a tumor presses on the trachea, doctors may insert a stent to hold the trachea open or use radiation therapy to shrink the tumor.

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