Support

Head and Neck Cancer – Overview

The information here has been reviewed and approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2014

Cancer begins when normal cells change and grow uncontrollably, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor will not spread.

Head and neck cancer is a term used to describe a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth.

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, meaning they begin in the flat, squamous cells that make up the thin surface layer of the structures in the head and neck. Directly beneath this lining, which is called the epithelium, some areas of the head and neck have a layer of moist tissue, called the mucosa. If a cancer is limited to the squamous layer of cells, it is called carcinoma in situ. If the cancer has grown beyond this cell layer and moved into the deeper tissue, then it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma. If the cancer starts in the salivary glands, the tumor will usually be classified as an adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, or mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

There are five main types of head and neck cancer, each named according to the part of the body where they develop.

Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer

The larynx is commonly called the voice box. It is a tube-shaped organ in the neck that is important for breathing, talking, and swallowing. It is located at the top of the windpipe, or trachea. The hypopharynx is also called the gullet. It is the lower part of the throat that surrounds the larynx.
Find out more

Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer

The nasal cavity is the space just behind the nose where air passes on the way to the throat. The paranasal sinuses are the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity.
Find out more

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

The nasopharynx is the air passageway at the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
Find out more

Oral and Oropharyngeal Cancer

The oral cavity includes the mouth and tongue. The oropharynx includes the middle of the throat from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box.
Find out more

Salivary Gland Cancer

The salivary gland is tissue that produces saliva, which is the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and that contains enzymes that begin breaking down food.
Find out more

Other types of cancer can also be located in this area of the body, but the diagnosis and treatment are much different.

Head and Neck Cancer – Risk Factors and Prevention

A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing cancer. Although risk factors often influence the development of cancer, most do not directly cause cancer. Some people with several risk factors never develop the disease, while others with no known risk factors do. However, knowing your risk factors and talking about them with your doctor may help you make more informed lifestyle and health care choices.

Two risk factors that greatly increase the risk of head and neck cancer are Tobacco use and frequent and heavy consumption of alcohol. There are other factors that can raise a person’s risk of developing head and neck cancer.

Find out more

Head and Neck Cancer – Symptoms and Signs

People with head and neck cancer often experience the following symptoms or signs. Sometimes, people with head and neck cancer do not show any of these symptoms. Or, these symptoms may be caused by a medical condition that is not cancer.

  • Swelling or sore that does not heal, the most common symptom
  • Red or white patch in the mouth
  • Lump, bump, or mass in the head or neck area, with or without pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • (Click here for the full list)

If you are concerned about one or more of the symptoms or signs on this list, please talk with your doctor.

Find out more

Head and Neck Cancer – Diagnosis

Doctors use many tests to diagnose cancer and find out if it has spread to another part of the body, called metastasis. Some tests may also determine which treatments may be the most effective. For most types of cancer, a biopsy (see description below) is the only way to make a definitive diagnosis of cancer. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis. Imaging tests may be used to find out whether the cancer has spread. This list describes options for diagnosing this type of cancer, and not all tests listed will be used for every person. Your doctor may consider these factors when choosing a diagnostic test:

  • Age and medical condition
  • Type of cancer suspected
  • Signs and symptoms
  • Previous test results

If a person has symptoms and signs of head and neck cancer, the doctor will take a complete medical history, noting all symptoms and risk factors. There are additional tests that may be used to diagnose head and neck cancer.

Find out more

Head and Neck Cancer – Staging

Staging is a way of describing where the cancer is located, if or where it has spread, and whether it is affecting other parts of the body. Doctors use diagnostic tests to find out the cancer’s stage, so staging may not be complete until all of the tests are finished. Knowing the stage helps the doctor to decide what kind of treatment is best and can help predict a patient’s prognosis, which is the chance of recovery. There are different stage descriptions for different types of cancer.

Find out more

 

Please get in touch with us for support and assistance and for any queries you may have regarding your symptoms, treatment and help with coping with Head and Neck Cancer.