Many head and neck cancers are curable, especially if they are diagnosed and treated early. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center offers comprehensive treatment from a team of experts who specialize in head and neck cancers.
“Head and neck cancers” is a collective name for several types of cancer that begin in certain structures of the head or neck, including:
The following cancers, which also affect the head or neck, are covered separately on our website:
Usually, head and neck cancers begin in squamous cells. Squamous cells make up the lining of many areas of your body, including your mouth, throat, nose and sinuses.
If cancer starts in your salivary glands, it’s a different type, called adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma or acinic cell carcinoma.
Your voice box (larynx) is at the top of your windpipe (trachea) and is important for speaking, breathing and swallowing.
There are three parts to your larynx:
Your hypopharynx is at the top of your esophagus, to the sides of and behind your larynx. It helps direct food and liquid into your esophagus instead of your larynx.
Cancer can form in one or more of these areas, most often in the squamous cells.
Nasal cancer occurs either in your nose or in the area behind your nose and toward your throat (nasal cavity). Your paranasal sinuses are air-filled pockets in the bone surrounding your nose and nasal cavity.
Squamous cell cancer is the most common form of cancer in this area. However, other types of cancer, including melanoma, sarcoma and midline granuloma, can form here. So can benign (noncancerous) tumors that may turn into cancer.
Your nasopharynx is the upper part of your throat, behind your nasal cavity. Your nostrils lead to your nasopharynx. Openings on each side of your nasopharynx lead to your ears. Nasopharyngeal cancer is also called throat cancer.
Cancer here typically starts in squamous cells. It is most common in people who have had the Epstein-Barr virus.
These cancers may occur in:
These cancers arise most often in the squamous cells that line these areas.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) increases risk for oral and oropharyngeal cancers. HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers and HPV-negative oropharyngeal cancers may not be treated the same. Recent studies show that HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancers usually occur in younger people, are less attributable to tobacco and alcohol, are more sensitive to treatment and often have a better prognosis. Doctors hope to better understand the differences through ongoing clinical studies.
Salivary gland cancer occurs in the glands around your mouth that produce saliva. There are three pairs of salivary glands:
Most salivary gland cancers begin in the parotid glands, the largest of the three pairs.
This type refers to squamous cell cancer found in the lymph nodes of your neck but not in other parts of your head or neck, indicating cancer spread to your neck from somewhere else.
Depending in part on the location of head and neck cancers, symptoms may include:
The symptoms of head and neck cancers may also be caused by other conditions, including some common conditions, that are not related to cancer. See your doctor if:
Today, people facing head and neck cancers have more options for treatment than ever before, and many can be cured.
Fred Hutch offers comprehensive care for head and neck cancers, including advanced treatments — like transoral robot-assisted surgery, proton therapy, fast neutron therapy and targeted immunotherapy — as well as new options available only through clinical studies open at Fred Hutch.
Your physician will examine you, looking at and feeling for lumps around your head and neck and looking in your nose, mouth and throat. They may use mirrors and a lighted tube, called an endoscope, to examine hard-to-see areas.
You may have imaging tests to help determine where a tumor is, how large it is and whether it has spread (metastasized). Imaging tests might include:
If your exam or tests reveal signs that you might have cancer, your doctor may do a biopsy. This means removing a sample of tissue with a needle or scalpel for a pathologist to examine under a microscope.
Most head and neck cancers are found in people over age 50.
At least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are related to use of tobacco (including cigarettes, pipes, cigars and smokeless tobacco, like chewing tobacco and snuff) and alcohol (especially beer or hard liquor), according to the National Institutes of Health.
The number of cases related to HPV, the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women, seems to be on the rise.
HPV vaccination is an effective measure to prevent HPV infection, which may reduce your risk for some cancers.
Other risk factors include: