Head & Neck Cancer: What You Need to Know

April 3, 2023

Head & Neck Cancer is a medical term for cancers that begin in the head and neck region, particularly in and around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth. Estimated to impact more than 68,000 people a year, these cancers account for nearly four percent of all cancers in the United States and are twice as common for men compared to women.

Most head and neck cancers are considered squamous cell carcinomas because they start in the squamous cells that comprise the thin layers of tissue throughout the head and neck. Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, sinuses, muscles, or nerves, but these types are not as common as squamous cell carcinomas.

Types of Head & Neck Cancer

There are five major types of head and neck cancer, named for the area of the body where cancer develops.

  • Laryngeal Cancer – Commonly known as the voice box, the larynx is in the neck and is vital for breathing, speaking, and swallowing.
  • Nasal Cavity/Paranasal Sinus Cancer – The paranasal sinuses are the small hollow spaces in the nose area of the head, and the nasal cavity is the space in the nose where air passes through on the way to the throat.
  • Oral Cancer – This includes the areas in and around the mouth, tongue, lips, and gums.
  • Salivary Gland Cancer – Producers of saliva, the major glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. Minor salivary glands are in the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat.
  • Throat Cancer – The pharynx is a hollow tube in the throat that begins behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It is made of three parts: the nasopharynx, the oropharynx, and the hypopharynx.

Other cancers can be found in the head and neck, such as brain tumors, esophageal cancer, eye cancer, parathyroid/thyroid cancer, sarcoma, and skin cancer, but the diagnosis and treatment for these cancers are very different.

Head & Neck Cancer Risk & Prevention

The two most important risk factors for head and neck cancer are tobacco use and alcohol. People who use both are at greater risk of developing head and neck cancer than those who use only one.

Tobacco use is the most significant risk factor for head and neck cancer. It is believed that approximately 70 to 80 percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. This includes smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes; smokeless tobacco such as chewing or snuff; and secondhand smoke. Quitting the use of all tobacco products, even if you have used them for years, can reduce your risk of head and neck cancer.

Heavy alcohol consumption raises cancer risk in the oral cavity, throat, and voice box. Additionally, strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) are strongly linked with certain types of cancer, specifically oropharyngeal cancer (which includes the tonsils, soft palate, and base of the tongue) and HPV type 16. Approximately 75 percent of oropharyngeal cancer cases are estimated to be associated with HPV infection, and this number is on the rise among young people.

Other risk factors include ultraviolet (UV) light exposure, Epstein-Barr virus infection, certain industrial and occupational elements (i.e., wood dust, asbestos, formaldehyde, etc.), and family history.

Although you cannot prevent head and neck cancer entirely, there are ways to lower your risk, such as:

  • Don’t use or stop using all tobacco products
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Reduce HPV infection risk with vaccination or practicing safe oral sex
  • Visit the dentist regularly

Head & Neck Cancer Diagnosis

During your annual physical examination, your doctor examines your nose, mouth, and throat for abnormalities and feels for lumps in the neck. Additionally, during routine dental checkups, your dentist looks for any irregularities. Your physician or dentist will refer you for a more extensive examination if anything unusual is found.

Free oral screenings may also be offered in your area. At Partners in Care, we regularly host free head and neck cancer screenings at our Head & Neck 5K run and 2-mile walk events.