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Head and Neck Cancers

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Head and neck cancers occur when cancerous cells develop in the head and neck area, including the mouth, throat, and nasal cavity. Usually, cancers of the head and neck begin in the cell lining of mucosal surfaces, or the tissue lining of organs with hollow openings. Head and neck cancers are identified in the following areas:

  • Oral Cavity: Comprised of the lips, the inside layer of the cheeks, the front portion of the tongue, the areas above and below the tongue, the gums, and the space behind the wisdom teeth.
  • Nasal Cavity: Includes the area within the nose.
  • Paranasal Sinuses: Includes the open spaces within the bones near the nose.
  • Lymph Nodes: Lymph nodes in the neck area can develop head and neck cancers.
  • Larynx: The larynx is the passageway that aids in breathing, swallowing, and speaking. Also known as the “voice box.”
  • Pharynx: The pharynx is the tube that connects the nose to the esophagus and trachea. Three parts: nasopharynx (behind the nose), oropharynx (middle of the pharynx), and hypopharynx (bottom of the pharynx).
  • Salivary Glands: These are the saliva-producing glands, usually in the mouth’s bottom.


  • It is estimated that more than 52,500 people in the United States will be diagnosed with some form of head and neck cancer, and more than 11,500 people will die of head and neck cancers in 2012.
  • More than 3,000 Texans are expected to be diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2012, and more than 800 Texans are estimated to die of the disease.
  • In the United States, head and neck cancers comprise about 3 percent of all cancer cases and develop more frequently in men than women.
  • About 75 percent of head and neck cancers are associated with the use of tobacco and alcohol.

Risk Factors 

  • Age: Adults over the age of 50 are more likely to face a head and neck cancer diagnosis.
  • Gender: Men face a higher risk of head and neck cancers than women.
  • HPV Infection: The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause different forms of head and neck cancers. Among men, head and neck cancers are the most common form of cancer caused by HPV.
  • Radiation: Exposure to the head and neck from x-rays or radiation treatment can increase risk for head and neck cancers.
  • Tobacco: Tobacco use increases risk for all head and neck cancers, especially for those of the oral cavity, hypopharynx, oropharynx, and larynx.
  • Alcohol: Those who consume alcohol face a greater risk of head and neck cancers.


It is important to consult a physician if any symptoms are experienced on a persistent basis.

  • Change in voice sound or hoarseness
  • Pain in the throat, mouth, and neck area
  • Swelling of the jaw, eyes, or chin
  • Irritations or lumps that do not heal
  • Chronic sore throat
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Persistent headaches
  • Bleeding of the mouth or nose

Treatment Options 

Treatment options vary depending on how advanced the cancer is and if it has spread to other parts of the body. Physicians will determine the most appropriate treatment for each patient, but possible treatment options include surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. A combination of treatments may be used for the best chance of disease control.

Sources: American Cancer Society, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and National Cancer Institute