What are head and neck cancers?

Call us
13 11 20
What are head and neck cancers?
Last reviewed June 2012
What are head and neck cancers?
Causes and risk factors
Information reviewed by
The mouth includes the lips, gums and tongue. The tongue is the largest organ in the mouth. The muscles of
the base of the tongue (tongue base) continue into the upper throat (oropharynx).
The roof of the mouth is called the hard palate. Behind the hard palate is the soft palate, which is an arch of
muscle going into the throat. The soft palate lifts to close off the passageways to the nose so food does not
go through the nose on swallowing.
Under the tongue and near the upper back teeth are salivary ducts that release spit (saliva) into the mouth.
The ducts are joined to salivary glands where saliva is made. The major glands are in front of the ears, and
beneath the jaw and tongue. There are hundreds of minor glands in the lining of the mouth.
Throat (pharynx)
The pharynx is a tube that runs from the back of the nose to the gullet (oesophagus) and the windpipe
(trachea). The pharynx has three parts: the nasopharynx, oropharynx (including the tonsils) and
Only air passes through the nasopharynx as you breathe in and out. Both food and air pass through the
oropharynx and hypopharynx. Food is directed into the oesophagus and goes into the stomach, while air
goes into the trachea to get to the lungs.
The voice box (larynx)
The larynx is a short passageway that connects the lower part of the pharynx (hypopharynx) with the
windpipe (trachea). It contains the vocal folds or vocal cords (glottis), which vibrate when air passes through
them to produce sound.
Above the vocal folds is a small flap of tissue called the epiglottis, which prevents food going into the trachea
when you swallow.
Below the vocal folds is the subglottis. Under the voice box, in front of the trachea, is the thyroid gland.
Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses
The nasal cavity is the large, air-filled space behind the nose. The nose and upper respiratory tract warm,
moisten and filter the air that you breathe. Paranasal sinuses are air-filled spaces within your skull that help
to lighten the weight of your head. They also produce mucus and vibrate sound when you speak or sing.
The sinuses are in four locations: frontal, ethmoid, sphenoid and maxillary.
What are head and neck cancers?
These cancers occur when malignant tumours grow in any of the tissue in the head or neck. Not all tumours
in the head and neck are malignant but benign and malignant tumours are treated in a similar way.
Mouth or oral cancer includes cancer that starts anywhere in the mouth, such as the lips, inside cheeks, the
front two-thirds of the tongue and the gums.
Salivary gland cancer can occur in any of the paired major glands in front of the ears or beneath the jaw or
Pharyngeal cancer defines cancers in the pharynx (throat): nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal and
hypopharyngeal cancers.
Laryngeal cancer starts in the larynx (voice box).
Nasal cancer or paranasal sinus cancer includes cancers starting in the nose, nasal cavity or the sinuses.
Other cancers in the head and neck area
Cancer can start in the tissue of the brain, eye, oesophagus, thyroid gland, skin and scalp. It can also start
in the bone or muscle of the head and neck. This is not classified as head and neck cancer.
The types of cells affected
Most head and neck cancers start in the cells that line the mouth, nose or throat (squamous cells). This is
called squamous cell carcinoma. Some cancers start in glandular cells. Many of these are called
adenocarcinomas but other rarer types can occur.
Causes and risk factors
Smoking is the biggest known risk factor for developing most types of head and neck cancer except for
salivary gland cancer. Other risk factors include alcohol, being a man, aged over 50, race, inhaling certain
chemicals, exposure to Human Papillomavirus (HPV), red or white patches in your mouth and sun
exposure. Statistics show smoking and drinking rates are higher in men than in women. This is probably a
reason why head and neck cancer is more common in men.
Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean you will get a head and neck cancer or that it is
definitely the cause of the cancer. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about any of these risk factors.
Smoking cigarettes or pipes, using chewing tobacco and
Tobacco or
dipping snuff causes about 85 per cent of head and neck
marijuana use
Alcohol use
A person’s risk increases with the amount of alcohol
consumed. Using both tobacco and alcohol further increases
the risk.
Head and neck cancer is most common in people aged 50
and older.
Men are about three times more likely than women to get
head and neck cancer.
People from some cultural backgrounds may be more likely to
develop certain types of head and neck cancer. For example,
people from southern China and South-East Asia may have
an increased risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.
Inhalation of
chemicals or
Breathing in sulphuric acid mist, asbestos fibres, dry-cleaning
solvents or certain types of paint or nickel may increase the
Sun exposure
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation may cause lip cancer, and is the
biggest cause of skin cancer in the head and neck.
White or red
Having white (leukoplakia) or red (erythroplakia) patches in
your mouth may lead to oral cancer.
areca nut
Chewing this type of palm tree seed – also known as betel
nut or paan – often wrapped in leaves, may cause oral
HPV may be associated with some cancers of the
papillomavirus oropharynx. This may be related to oral sex, which transmits
the virus.
There are different symptoms depending on which area of the head or neck are affected.
Oral cancer
Mouth pain or pain on swallowing
A sore or swelling in your mouth or jaw that doesn’t go away
White patches (leukoplakia) or red patches (erythroplakia) on your gums, tongue or mouth
Changes in speech or difficulty pronouncing words
Difficulty chewing or swallowing food
A lump in your neck
Loose teeth or dentures that no longer fit.
Salivary gland cancer
Swelling or numbness on one side of the face or under the jaw
Different appearance on each side of the face or neck
Difficulty swallowing
Drooping or muscle weakness on one side of the face (palsy).
Pharyngeal cancer
Throat pain
A persistent sore throat or cough
Coughing up bloody phlegm
Voice changes or hoarseness
Dull pain around the breastbone
Difficulty swallowing
A lump in the neck
An earache
Feeling that your air supply is blocked
Numbness of the face.
Laryngeal cancer
Swelling in the neck or throat
A persistent sore throat
A change in the sound of your voice or hoarseness
Difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing
A lump in the neck.
Nasal or paranasal sinus cancer
Decreased sense of smell
A persistent blocked nose, particularly in one nostril
Mucous drainage in the back of your nose or throat
Frequent headaches or sinus pressure
Difficulty swallowing
Loose or painful teeth
A lump on/in your face, nose or mouth
Numbness of the face or within the mouth
Pressure or pain in your ears
A bulging or watery eye, double vision or complete or partial loss of eyesight.
Information reviewed by: Dr Tim Iseli, ENT Surgeon, Royal Melbourne Hospital; Katrina Blyth, Senior
Speech Pathologist, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Dr David Boadle, Staff Specialist, Medical Oncology,
Royal Hobart Hospital; Geoffrey Booth, Consumer; Teresa Brown, Team Leader, Royal Brisbane and
Women’s Hospital; Marty Doyle, Co-founder and Facilitator, Head and Neck Cancer Support Group,
Brisbane; Dr Peter Foltyn, Dental Department, St Vincent’s Hospital, NSW; Noelene Hunt, Consumer; Dr
Michael Jackson, Director, Radiation Oncology Department, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Len McDowall,
Consumer; and Cancer Council SA Helpline Consultant.
Content printed from https://www.cancersa.org.au/information/a-z-index/what-are-head-and-neck-cancers
This website is made possible by the generous support of South Australians.
Copyright © 2010-2016 Cancer Council SA