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About Head & Neck Cancers

Due to their location, head and neck cancers and their treatments may affect the way patients speak, swallow, communicate, eat, smell, and see, and they can also have an effect on facial expression and appearance. Fortunately, many head and neck cancers can be cured, especially when they are diagnosed early.

Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers arise from the cells that make up the face, mouth and throat. Because cancers in different locations behave differently, treatment depends on the cancer type and extent. Some common locations include:

  • Nasal cavity/paranasal sinuses
  • Nasopharynx
  • Oral cavity (lips, gums, floor of mouth, oral tongue, cheek mucosa, hard palate, retromolar trigone)
  • Oropharynx (base of tongue, tonsils, soft palate, oropharyngeal wall)
  • Larynx (vocal cords and supraglottic larynx)
  • Hypopharynx (pyriform sinuses, post-cricoid area, posterior pharyngeal wall)
  • Salivary glands (parotid, submandibular, sublingual and minor salivary glands)
  • Thyroid

Cancers arising in the brain or eyes are considered different from head and neck cancers.

Risk Factors for Head & Neck Cancers

The use of tobacco and alcohol greatly increases your chances of developing head and neck cancer. Risk factors include:

  • Alcohol consumption.
  • Smoking or use of smokeless tobacco, such as chew or dip.
  • Exposure to wood or nickel dust or asbestos.
  • Exposure to viruses, particularly the human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).

Quitting Smoking

If you quit smoking, the health benefits begin immediately.

  • For patients with head and neck cancer, quitting smoking reduces the risks of developing other related cancers and makes it much easier to tolerate treatment.
  • To learn how to quit, ask your doctor or visit

Symptoms of Head & Neck Cancers 

Although there are sometimes no symptoms of head and neck cancer, common complaints are below.  If you experience symptoms of any kind that concern you, please visit a doctor or emergency room immediately.

  • Lump or sore that does not heal.
  • Sore throat that does not go away.
  • Difficulty or pain with swallowing.
  • Change in your voice or hoarseness.
  • Blood in your saliva or from your nose.
  • Ear pain or loss of hearing.
  • Lump in the neck.
  • Nasal stuffiness that does not resolve.

Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancers

To look for cancer, your doctor will examine all the areas of your head and neck.

  • Your doctor will first feel for lumps on the neck, mouth and throat. He or she may also use a flexible endoscope, a thin, lighted tube that is passed through the nose, to obtain a more comprehensive assessment of the head and neck area.
  • X-ray, CT, MR and PET scans are often needed to show the location and extent of the cancer.
  • To confirm if you have cancer, some tissue will need to be removed and analyzed. This test is called a biopsy.