About Head and Neck Cancer

The term “head and neck cancer” refers to any cancer in that area, such as the nasal cavity, skin, sinuses, lips, mouth, salivary glands (uncommon), throat or larynx (voice box).

Tobacco and alcohol use are the most important risk factors for head and neck cancer.  In fact, at least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco and alcohol use. HPV or human papillomavirus appears to be responsible for the increase in cancers of the tonsil and base of tongue in younger nonsmokers.

Head and neck cancers account for approximately 3 percent of all cancers in the United States. These cancers are more common in men than women. Head and neck cancers are also diagnosed more often among people over age 50 than they are among younger people.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

  • Oral cavity
    Cancer of the lip, front two-thirds of the tongue, gums, lining inside the cheeks, floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, hard palate (bony top of the mouth)
  • Pharynx (throat)
    Cancer of the pharynx has three parts: nasopharynx - upper part behind the nose; oropharynx - middle part including soft palate (back of the mouth), base of tongue and tonsils; and hypopharynx – lower part of pharynx
  • Larynx
    Cancer of the larynx (voice box) contains the vocal cords and epiglottis (prevents food from entering air passages)
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity
    Cancer in the sinuses surrounding the nose or inside the nose
  • Salivary glands
    Cancer of the glands in the floor of the mouth that produce saliva
  • Skin or Melanoma
    Cancer that develops on the skin of the scalp, face, or neck
  • Thyroid
    Cancer of the thyroid gland located in the front of your neck
  • Parathyroid 
    Cancer of the parathyroid may include one of the four pea-sized glands found in the neck near the thyroid gland

Most Common Risk Factors

  •  Smoking tobacco
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Heavy alcohol use 
  • Eating a diet without enough nutrients 
  • Sun exposure to the lips 
  • Industrial exposures, such as wood or nickel dust inhalation 
  • Poor oral hygiene 
  • Plummer-Vinson syndrome, a rare disorder that results from iron and nutritional deficiencies
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Common Symptoms

  • The symptoms listed below could be related to a variety of health conditions, but they are the most common for patients diagnosed with head and neck cancer. If you have these symptoms persistently, please see your doctor.
  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Ear pain 
  • A lump in the neck 
  • Painful or difficult swallowing 
  • A change in voice 
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth 
  • A swelling of the jaw or chin

Head and Neck Cancer Program