Share to Twitter

Head and Neck Cancers

Printer Friendly PDF 

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 moist 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 lips and 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 hollow area within the nose.
  • Paranasal Sinuses: Includes the open spaces within the bones around the nose.
  • Lymph Nodes: Enlarged lymph nodes in the upper neck area can sometimes be the first sign of head and neck cancers.
  • Larynx: Known as the “voice box,” the larynx is the passageway that aids in breathing, swallowing, and speaking.
  • Pharynx: The pharynx is the tube that connects the nose to the esophagus. It has three parts: nasopharynx (behind the nose), oropharynx (middle of the pharynx, including soft palate, base of tongue, and tonsils), and hypopharynx (bottom of the pharynx).
  • Salivary Glands: These are the saliva-producing glands, in the mouth’s bottom and near the jawbone.


  • While statistics are not available for all head and neck cancer types, 45,780 people in the U.S. in 2015 are expected to be diagnosed with oral cavity/pharynx cancer and 13,560 with larynx cancer, with 8,650 and 3,640 deaths respectively.
  • In Texas in 2015, 2,793 people are expected to be diagnosed with oral cavity/pharynx cancer and 840 with larynx cancer, resulting in 694 deaths and 302 deaths, respectively.
  • 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 cases of head and neck cancers are associated with the use of tobacco and alcohol.

Risk Factors 

  • Age: Adults over the age of 55 are more likely to face a head and neck cancer diagnosis.
  • Gender: Men are twice as likely to develop head and neck cancers as women.
  • HPV Infection: The human papillomavirus (HPV) increases risk for some forms of head and neck cancers. HPV causes about 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Radiation: Exposure to the head and neck from X-rays or radiation treatment can increase risk.
  • 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.
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection: Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus increases risk of nasopharyngeal and salivary gland cancer.
  • Lifestyle factors: Occupational exposure to wood dust, poor oral health, and consumption of paan, mate, preserved or salted foods are associated with head and neck cancer.


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, ear, face, chin, or neck area
  • Swelling of the jaw, eyes, or chin
  • Irritations or lumps that do not heal
  • Chronic sore throat or blocked sinuses
  • Trouble swallowing, hearing, or breathing
  • 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, proton therapy, targeted therapy, and chemotherapy. A combination of treatments may be used for the best chance of disease control.

Sources: American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute, and Texas Cancer Registry