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UT Southwestern Medical Center offers multidisciplinary, coordinated care and access to subspecialty experts for treating even rare cancers, such as those in the airway. 

As the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in North Texas, we deliver the best cancer care available today and push to discover new treatments. NCI designation means we offer patients the ability to participate in the broadest possible range of clinical trials, with access to potential therapies not available at other facilities.

Multidisciplinary Expertise to Treat 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’s skilled chest (thoracic) cancer physicians lead our diagnosis and treatment team. In many cases, they work with our pulmonary medicine (lung) and otolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat) specialists to help meet the unique needs of each airway cancer patient.

Causes and Symptoms

Airway cancers are most commonly related to smoking. Human papillomavirus (HPV) can also lead to airway tumors.

Often the first sign of airway cancer is difficulty breathing, which occurs as a tumor grows and obstructs the airway.


If a doctor suspects airway cancer, he or she will conduct a physical examination and order tests to confirm the diagnosis. Further tests might 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, which visualizes airway tissue that can be sampled by instruments passed through the bronchoscope, and electromagnetic navigational bronchoscopy to evaluate harder-to-reach lesions.
  • Chest X-ray: X-rays help physicians 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.
  • Endoscopic ultrasonography: This technology maps sound waves to show physicians if cancer is present in the airway.

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


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 might 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. Endotracheal therapies typically are used to treat superficial malignancies, dysplasias, and early-stage cancers.
  • Medical treatment (chemotherapy): Chemotherapy drugs, taken orally or intravenously, might be used to target and kill airway cancer cells. Chemotherapy also might be used in conjunction with radiation therapy (chemoradiation) to treat airway cancer.
  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells in the airway. UT Southwestern is a recognized leader in the development and use of cancer-fighting radiation therapies.
  • Surgery: Highly precise surgery to remove cancerous tissue might be used in some cases of airway cancer.

Support Services

Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center offers an array of support services to people undergoing treatment at UT Southwestern for airway cancer – and even for those who have been treated in the past. These services range from survivorship seminars to nutrition counseling to support groups.

Clinical Trials

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

UT Southwestern conducts clinical trials aimed at improving the care and outcomes of patients with airway cancer. Talk to your cancer team to determine if a clinical trial is right for you.