Airway Cancer

Airway cancers are uncommon cancers that originate in the airway, or windpipe (trachea). They include primary cancers, such as squamous cell carcinomas, adenoid cystic carcinomas, tracheal carcinoid tumors, and mucoepidermoid carcinomas.

UT Southwestern Medical Center’s skilled chest (thoracic) cancer physicians are known for being experts in diagnosing and treating airway cancer.

In many cases, our clinicians work closely with UT Southwestern’s pulmonary medicine (lung) and otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat) specialists to treat patients with airway cancer.

Diagnosis

If your doctor suspects that you have airway cancer, he or she will conduct a physical examination and order tests to confirm the diagnosis. Further tests may be needed to help determine the cancer’s stage and precise location.

Imaging techniques used to diagnose airway cancer might include:

Advanced endobronchial staging equipment
This equipment includes linear endobronchial ultrasound (visualizes airway tissue that can be sampled by instruments passed through the bronchoscope) and electromagnetic navigational bronchoscopy, which may be used to evaluate harder-to-reach lesions.
Chest X-ray
X-rays help visualize abnormalities in the airway.
Contrast enhanced or multidetector computed tomography (CT) scan
CT technology helps physicians visualize the location and extent of airway cancer.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
MRI helps physicians identify suspicious areas that could indicate airway cancer and learn if, and how far, it has spread.
Positron emission tomography (PET)
Cancer cells absorb large amounts of radioactive sugar that are used in this technique, and a special camera creates images of that radioactivity, enabling physicians to identify cancerous cells in the pericardium.
Endoscopic ultrasonography
This technology maps sound waves to show physicians if cancer is present in the airway.

Additional testing also may include a tissue sample (biopsy) of the airway tissue to determine the presence of cancer.

Treatment

Airway cancer treatment options depend on the cancer’s precise location and stage, the patient’s overall health, goals, and preferences, and other factors.

UT Southwestern’s thoracic cancer specialists may consider these therapies for treating airway cancer:

Endotracheal treatments
These minimally invasive therapies include thulium (versus holmium) laser resection and laser therapy in which blood-thinning drugs are taken prior to using a low-current laser that destroys cancerous cells. These therapies typically are used to treat superficial malignancies, dysplasias, and early-stage cancers.
Medical treatment (chemotherapy)
Chemotherapy drugs, taken orally or intravenously, may be used to target and kill airway cancer cells. Chemotherapy also may be used in conjunction with radiation therapy (chemoradiation) to treat airway cancer.
Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation, such as X-rays, to destroy cancer cells in the airway. UT Southwestern is a recognized leader in the development and use of cancer-fighting radiation therapies. Learn more about radiation therapy for chest cancers.
Surgery
Highly precise surgery to remove cancerous tissue may be used in some cases of airway cancer. Learn more about surgery for chest cancers.

Depending on the cause and extent of their airway cancer, some patients may be eligible to participate in clinical trials of new treatments for the disease.

Clinical Trials

UT Southwestern conducts clinical trials aimed at improving the care and outcomes of patients with airway cancer. Your cancer physicians can help you determine if you are eligible to participate in a clinical trial.

Meet Our Experts

UT Southwestern’s airway cancer experts use a variety of advanced techniques and technologies to diagnose and care for patients with airway cancer. Our multidisciplinary team includes these medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and surgical oncologists.

Learn more about the chest cancer team.

Request an Appointment

To schedule an appointment with an airway cancer specialist, request an appointment or call 214-645-8300.