Head & Neck Cancer Treatments

Head and neck cancers are cancers that start in the tissues and organs of the head and neck. They include cancers of the larynx (voice box), throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands.

Most types of head and neck cancer begin in squamous cells that line the moist surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, the mouth, nose, and throat).

Tobacco use, heavy alcohol use, and infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) increase the risk of many types of head and neck cancer.

To get the right information about treatment and prognosis, you need to know exactly what type of head and neck cancer you have and what stage it is.

What are cancers of the head and neck?

Cancers that are known collectively as head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat). These squamous cell cancers are often referred to as squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck. 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.

Cancers of the head and neck are further categorized by the area of the head or neck in which they begin. These areas are described below and labeled in the image of head and neck cancer regions.

Oral cavity: Includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.

Pharynx: The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); the oropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).

Larynx: The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.

Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva.


What causes cancers of the head and neck?

Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or "snuff") are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. At least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone). Tobacco and alcohol use are not risk factors for salivary gland cancers.

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue. In the United States, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, while the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers related to other causes is falling. More information is available in the HPV and Cancer fact sheet.


Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include the following:

Paan (betel quid), Mate, Preserved or salted foods, Oral health: Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be weak risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity. Use of mouthwash that has a high alcohol content is a possible, but not proven, risk factor for cancers of the oral cavity.


What are the symptoms of head and neck cancers?

The symptoms of head and neck cancers may include a lump or a sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty in swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice. These symptoms may also be caused by other, less serious conditions. It is important to check with a doctor or dentist about any of these symptoms.

Symptoms that may affect specific areas of the head and neck include the following:

Oral cavity : A white or red patch on the gums, the tongue, or the lining of the mouth; a swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable; and unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth.

Pharynx : Trouble breathing or speaking; pain when swallowing; pain in the neck or the throat that does not go away; frequent headaches, pain, or ringing in the ears; or trouble hearing.

Larynx : Pain when swallowing or ear pain.

Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity : Sinuses that are blocked and do not clear; chronic sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics; bleeding through the nose; frequent headaches, swelling or other trouble with the eyes; pain in the upper teeth; or problems with dentures.

Salivary glands : Swelling under the chin or around the jawbone, numbness or paralysis of the muscles in the face, or pain in the face, the chin, or the neck that does not go away.