Cancers of the head and neck originate in the squamous cells that line the moist tissues inside the mouth, nose and throat. They may also begin in the salivary glands, though this type of cancer is rare. If caught early, they are often curable.

Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Cancers that develop in the head and neck region are classified according to their location in the body. Malignant tumors can affect the following areas:

  • Oral cavity. Affected organs include the lips, tongue, hard palate, gums, and mouth.
  • Larynx. Also known as the voicebox; includes the vocal cords and epiglottis.
  • Pharynx. The throat consists of three parts: the nasopharynx (upper portion, behind the nose), oropharynx (middle part, includes the soft palate and tonsils), and hypopharynx (lower section).
  • Paranasal sinuses. Includes the nasal cavity.
  • Salivary glands. At the bottom of the mouth near the jawbone.

Cancers that form nearby – brain tumors, thyroid cancer, esophageal cancer, etc. – are not classified as head and neck cancers because of their different behavior.

Symptoms & Risk Factors

Many of the most common symptoms of head and neck cancers are also associated with other, less serious conditions. A through physical evaluation and diagnostic testing is necessary for a proper diagnosis. The first sign might be swollen lymph nodes or changes to the voice, such as hoarseness. Other signs include a lump or sore that doesn’t get better, sore throat that won’t go away, painful or difficult swallowing, white or red patches on the gums, swollen jaw, pain or bleeding in the mouth, trouble breathing or speaking, headaches, earache, unusual weight loss,

Symptoms of head and neck cancers are similar to those associated with other conditions, and may seem harmless at first. Common signs include a lump or sore that doesn’t heal, persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, and hoarseness. Other symptoms that you may experience: bleeding from the mouth, swelling of the jaw, frequent congestion, sinus infections that don’t respond to treatment, headaches, earaches, facial numbness or paralysis, facial pain and pressure, enlarged lymph nodes, and unexplained weight loss.

As with many types of cancer, the main risk factor is tobacco use. Smoking or chewing tobacco significantly increases your risk of developing a cancer in this region. Heavy alcohol use can also be a contributing factor, especially if you are also a smoker. Other risk factors include industrial toxin exposure, a diet high in processed meats and red meats and lacking fruits and vegetables, betel nut chewing, exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV), acid reflux, and Epstein-Barr virus.

Treating Head & Neck Cancers

Treatment for head and neck cancers is dependent upon a number of factors, most notably size and location of the tumor(s), whether they have spread to other parts of the body, and the general health of the patient.

Options will likely include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of any of the above.