About Head and Neck Cancer

Many people learn about head and neck cancer when they are diagnosed with it. You may wonder what it is, and how to take care yourself. 

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).

Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, but salivary gland cancers are relatively uncommon. Salivary glands contain many different types of cells that can become cancerous, so there are many different types of salivary gland cancer.

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 lips, 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

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.

Common Symptoms

These and other symptoms may be caused by head and neck cancer. Other conditions may cause the same symptoms. Consult with your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

  • 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