Tracheal cancer is a relatively uncommon malignancy that affects the windpipe (trachea), a complex organ situated in the lower neck and upper chest. A long tube composed of rings of cartilage, the trachea plays an important role in the breathing process, connecting the voice box (larynx) to the bronchi, which carry inhaled air into the lungs. Inside, the trachea is lined with mucus-producing cells that trap allergens, dust particles and other debris and help keep this foreign matter out of the lungs.
The precise causes of tracheal cancer are not yet fully understood by experts in the general medical community. Although certain types have been definitively linked to cigarette smoking, other types have not. The symptoms can include persistent coughing, coughing up blood-tinged mucus, difficulty swallowing, labored breathing, vocal hoarseness, wheezing and stridor (a high-pitched sound caused by disrupted airflow when inhaling or exhaling).
The most common types of malignant tracheal and bronchial tumors are:
Squamous cell carcinoma
A fast-growing cancer that is primarily caused by smoking, squamous cell carcinoma can arise in both the upper and lower trachea. A growing tumor can potentially penetrate the mucosal lining of the trachea, which can cause ulceration and bleeding.
Adenoid cystic carcinoma
Unlike squamous cell carcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma is not caused by smoking, and it is unlikely to penetrate the mucosal lining of the trachea. However, a slow-growing tumor may eventually close off the airway.
Carcinoid tumors develop in abnormal neuroendocrine cells, which produce hormones such as serotonin. Although more commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract, carcinoid tumors occasionally develop in the trachea and bronchi as well.
Treatment options for all types of tracheal cancer
Because most early-stage tracheal tumors can be surgically removed, surgery is the most common treatment option for tracheal cancer. When performing a tracheal resection, a surgical oncologist will typically remove the entire section of the trachea that contains the tumor, then reconnect the remaining sections of the trachea with sutures. This approach can help prevent a cancer recurrence.
If a tracheal tumor is too large to be removed with traditional surgery, bronchoscopic surgery may be suggested. During this type of procedure, a surgeon or interventional pulmonologist passes a thin, lighted tube (bronchoscope) through the nose or mouth and into the trachea. After inserting specialized surgical instruments through the bronchoscope, the surgeon or interventional pulmonologist may remove the tumor using a laser or cryoablation (freezing). Other treatments may be considered as well, such as radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Medically reviewed by Eric Toloza, MD, PhD, Thoracic Oncology Program
If you would like more information about tracheal cancer, you are welcome to request an appointment with a specialist in the Thoracic Oncology Program at Moffitt Cancer Center. To do so, call 1-888-663-3488 or complete our new patient registration form online. As Florida’s top cancer hospital, we understand that every day counts after a cancer diagnosis, and we want to support you with compassionate care every step of the way.