Head and Neck Cancer: The Basics

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed: February 02, 2023

Head and neck cancer is caused by cells growing out of control. As the number of cells grows, they form a tumor. There are many different areas that make up the head and neck, and cancers are grouped by the area where they are:

  • Oral cavity: Includes the lips, front part of the tongue, roof and floor of the mouth, parts of the gum line, and the inside lining of the cheeks.
  • Nasopharynx: The areas of the pharynx (throat) behind the nose and the lining of the nose.
  • The sinuses: Hollow spaces in the bones of the head and the nasal cavity (open space inside the nose).
  • Salivary glands: Found in the bottom of the mouth and produce saliva.
  • Oropharynx: area of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth, the soft part of the roof of the mouth, tonsils, and the base of the tongue.
  • Hypopharynx: The area of the pharynx (throat) below the oropharynx down to the esophagus (the tube that food goes down).
  • Larynx: The voice box and the epiglottis, which are in front of the hypopharynx.
  • Parts of the ear including the external auditory canal, middle and inner ear.

To see more images of head and neck cancer anatomy, click here.

Head and neck cancer that has spread from one part of the head and neck to any other part of the body is called metastatic cancer.

Risk Factors

Head and neck cancers are often caused by tobacco and alcohol use. Both smoked and smokeless types of tobacco can raise your risk. Other risk factors are:

  • Infection with some strains of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Head and neck cancers caused by HPV are becoming more common.
  • Having a diet high in salt-cured foods.
  • Long-term sun exposure to the lip.
  • Exposure to substances like asbestos, second-hand smoke, radiation, and wood dust.
  • Inactive infection with the Epstein Barr virus.
  • Poor dental/oral health.

Screening

There are no screening tests for the early detection of head and neck cancers. Your dentist should check your mouth, tongue, and neck during dental exams.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer depend on where the tumor is. Symptoms can be:

  • Weight loss from having trouble swallowing food.
  • A new lump or sore that doesn’t go away.
  • Sore throat.
  • Change in voice.
  • Pain.

Diagnosis of Head and Neck Cancer

If your healthcare provider thinks you may have head and neck cancer, you will need tests done to look at the inside and the outside of your head and neck. Tests may be:

  • Endoscopy uses an endoscope, which is a thin tube with a camera on it. It is inserted into the nose or down the throat to look at and biopsy any concerning areas.
  • CT scan.
  • MRI.
  • PET scan.

Staging for Head and Neck Cancer

To guide treatment, head and neck cancer is "staged." This stage is based on:

  • Where and how big the tumor is.
  • If cancer cells are in the lymph nodes.
  • If cancer cells are in other areas of the body.

Stages range from stage I (smallest, most confined tumors) to stage IV (tumors that have spread to other areas of the body, also called metastatic cancer). The stage and type of cancer will guide your treatment plan.

Treatment

Head and neck cancers are treated in a variety of ways depending on where the tumor is, the stage of the tumor, and how healthy the patient is. In general, the following treatments may be used:

  • Surgery with the goal of removing the entire tumor and some surrounding healthy tissue. You may need reconstructive surgery to save function and appearance.
  • Radiation uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. It can be used before or after surgery and/or chemotherapy.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of medication to kill cancer cells. It may be given with radiation to help the radiation work better, which is called radiosensitization.
  • Targeted therapy and Immunotherapies (another type of medication) can be used in squamous cell head and neck cancers.

This article is a basic guide to head and neck cancer. You can learn more about your type of cancer and treatment by using the links below:

Treatment Options for Head and Neck Cancers

Side Effect Management and Support Resources

Hypopharyngeal (Lower Throat) Cancer: Staging and Treatment

Laryngeal Cancer: Staging and Treatment

Nasal Cavity (Nose) and Paranasal Sinus Cancers: Staging and Treatment

Nasopharyngeal Cancer: Staging and Treatment

Oral Cavity (Mouth), Lip, and Oropharyngeal (Throat): Staging and Treatment

Parathyroid Cancer: Staging and Treatment

Salivary Gland Cancer: Staging and Treatment

References

American Cancer Society. (2022). Head and neck cancers. Taken from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/head-neck-cancer.html

National Institute of Health: National Cancer Institute. (2021). Head and neck cancers. Taken from https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/head-neck-fact-sheet

Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Head and neck cancers. Taken from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/headneck/index.htm

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