What is head and neck cancer?
Head and neck (HN) cancer most often originates in the lining tissues (mucosa) of the head and neck . The lining tissue is made of squamous cells, and the most common type of cancer therefore is called squamous cell carcinoma.
HN cancer can originate in several different head and neck structures, so each type of HN cancer can have different types of treatment approaches.
- The larynx (also known as the voice box) is important for speaking and swallowing, and it connects the upper airways of the nose and mouth to the lower airway of the trachea.
- The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. The pharynx has 3 parts: the nasopharynx, the oropharynx and the hypopharynx.
- The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose and the nasal cavity (a hollow space inside the nose)1.
- The oral cavity includes the lip, front two thirds of the tongue, gums, lining of the cheeks and lips, bottom and top of the mouth, and the small area of gum behind the wisdom teeth1.
- The salivary glands include the major salivary glands (such as the parotid, submandibular and sublingual glands) and the minor salivary glands located throughout the mouth and throat.
Skin cancers of the head and neck and thyroid cancers are generally regarded as separate disease entities from HN mucosal cancers and salivary gland cancers.
What are the risk factors of HN cancer?
Common risk factors associated with HN cancer include:
- tobacco (including chewing tobacco)
- human papillomavirus (HPV) (predominately in oropharyngeal cancers)
- Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) (nasopharyngeal cancers)
What are the symptoms of HN cancer?
Common symptoms of HN cancer consist of:
- neck lumps that do not go away (often painless)
- other lumps or sores that do not go away
- repeated or persistent sore throat
- trouble swallowing (pain or food getting stuck)
- change in voice
- unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth, throat or nose
Other symptoms may include:
- pain in neck or throat that does not go away
- chronic sinus infections
- frequent headaches
- swelling or other problems with the eyes
- dental pain
- ear pain
- trouble breathing or speaking
- trouble hearing
- double vision
How is HN cancer diagnosed?
Diagnostic tests for HN cancer include physical examinations, endoscopy, X-rays, computerized tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) scans and biopsies3.
For Cancer System Quality Index (CSQI) data about HN cancer, see the following sections:
For more information on HN cancer, visit the following sites:
- National Cancer Institute [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health. Head and neck cancers; 2013 Feb 1 [cited 2015 Mar 5]. Available from: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/head-and-neck.
- The Head and Neck Disease Site Team, Juravinski Hospital and Cancer Centre. Head and neck cancer radiation treatment: information for patients receiving radiation therapy for cancers of the head and neck [Internet]. Hamilton (ON): Hamilton Health Sciences; 2013 [cited 2015 Mar 5]. Available from: http://www.hamiltonhealthsciences.ca/documents/Patient%20Education/HeadAndNeckCancerTreatment-th.pdf.