This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Beomjune B. Kim, DMD, MD, FACS, Head and Neck and Microvascular Reconstructive Surgeon

This page was updated on May 26, 2023.

A cordectomy is a surgical procedure that removes part or all of the vocal cords if you have laryngeal cancer. This cancer affects the voice box, or larynx, which you use for breathing, talking and swallowing. The voice box is located above your trachea (windpipe).

Why a cordectomy is done

A cordectomy helps to extract cancer that affects the vocal cords, also called vocal folds. Cancer may begin in any part of the larynx.

A common type of head and neck cancer, laryngeal cancer is often removed entirely if it’s discovered early enough.

One major goal of treatment is to help preserve the larynx, especially when the cancer is in its early stages. At this point, surgery or radiation therapy on its own may be enough to treat the cancer. Larger tumors may require several therapies, though, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Your larynx has vocal cords that vibrate and enable you to speak. It has three parts:

  • Glottis, or the middle section, which contains the vocal folds
  • Supraglottis, above the vocal folds
  • Subglottis, below the vocal folds, which links the larynx to the windpipe

Cordectomy is a treatment option for tumors on the glottis. Providers may limit this treatment to patients with early tumors considered at stage T1.

T1 refers to a tumor that is only on the vocal cords and doesn’t change their movement. A tumor on the right or left vocal cord is called T1a. A tumor on both vocal cords is called T1b.

How to prepare for a cordectomy

  • Quit smoking: Smoking cessation before a cordectomy has several benefits. It helps increase survival chances, lower side effects and make it easier to heal after surgery.
  • Adopt good health habits: Try to eat fewer processed foods and get enough physical activity. Before starting an exercise for the first time, ask your care team about any physical limitations you may have.
  • Ask your care team other questions as well: Let them provide you with feedback and instructions on how to prepare for a cordectomy.

How it’s performed

During a cordectomy, the surgeon will remove the tumor and the margin, or healthy tissue, surrounding it. This is done to help ensure no cancer is left behind during the surgery.

Risks of a cordectomy

Ask your surgeon about any risks associated with a cordectomy specific for you and your health. Any type of surgery increases the risk for certain health complications, including:

  • Blood clots
  • Infections
  • Complications from anesthesia
  • Pneumonia

In general, surgeries for laryngeal cancer may have the following potential risks:

  • Neck disfigurement
  • Impaired mobility in shoulder and neck
  • Impaired speech, or an inability to speak if you have a total cordectomy
  • Numbness in the throat and neck
  • Problems swallowing or talking
  • Excessive production of mucus or saliva
  • Swelling of mouth and throat

Your care team may encourage you to work with rehabilitation specialists in an attempt to manage any changes in your physical functions post-surgery. Both before and after surgery, your care team may review whether, or how, a cordectomy may affect your ability to speak.

Chances of recurrence

Your chance of developing cancer again in the same area is highest in the initial 18 to 24 months after treatment, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology. It’s also possible for a second cancer to develop in another part of the body.

If you’ve had laryngeal cancer, you’re at a greater risk for other types of cancers, including:

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