Head and neck cancer refers to any cancer that develops in the throat, nose, mouth, lips, voice box, sinuses, or salivary glands. These forms of cancer make up about 3% of all cancer cases in the United States each year. Over 90% of head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, meaning they start in the moist, inner lining of the mouth and throat, and can grow into deeper layers of tissue.
The American Head and Neck Society is pleased to present educational material on some common types of Head and Neck cancers. Each of the sections below contains a general description of the cancer, risk factors associated with it, as well as diagnosis, staging and treatment options.
This information is intended to provide a general overview of head and neck cancers. It is not intended in any way to serve as a substitute for professional medical care and a discussion between the patient and doctor. Specific recommendations may vary among health care professionals. If you are a patient and have any concerns, do not hesitate to ask your doctor, another health care professional, or his/her office staff about it.
Laryngeal cancer is cancer that starts in the cells of the larynx (voice box). The larynx contains vocal cords that vibrate and create sound (i.e. a person’s voice) as air passes over them. The larynx also contains the epiglottis, which is a structure that prevents food from entering the wind pipe.
Lip and oral cavity cancer refers to cancer that starts in the cells lining the lips and the inside of the mouth. Most tumors of the lip and oral cavity (~90%) are squamous cell carcinomas, which start in the thin, flat cells that line these areas.
The nasal cavity consists of the passageways behind the nose that air moves through when breathing. The nasal cavity starts behind the nose, passes over the roof of the mouth, and connects to the throat (nasopharynx). There is a left and right nasal cavity, separated by the nasal septum.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ. It covers and protects your body and helps regulate your body temperature. Your skin has three main layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and a layer of fatty tissue. Skin cancer usually forms in your epidermis, which is the outermost layer of skin. Your epidermis is made up of three main types of cells: squamous cells, basal cells, and melanocytes.
The pharynx (throat) is the hollow tube inside the neck (~5 inches long) that connects the back of the nasal cavity to the top of the windpipe and esophagus. There are 3 main sections of the pharynx, and cancer can develop in any of these:
Salivary gland cancer refers to cancer that starts in the cells of the salivary glands. Salivary gland cancer is very rare and makes up about 6% of head and neck cancer diagnoses. The salivary glands are glands that produce and secrete saliva, the watery fluid found in the mouth and throat.
Thyroid cancer is a type of cancer that develops in the thyroid gland. The thyroid gland is a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of the neck, just below the Adam’s apple, that wraps around the front of the windpipe. The thyroid gland has two lobes, one on each side of the windpipe, that are connected by a small piece of tissue in the middle.
There are three types of tonsils in the throat: the nasopharyngeal tonsils known as adenoids that are located behind the nose, the palatine tonsils located on the sides of the throat, and the lingual tonsils that are located on the back of the tongue. Tonsil cancer most often involves the palatine tonsils, which are two oval shaped pads made of white blood cells located at the back and sides of the mouth, or the oropharynx. The tonsils are made of lymphoid tissue and are responsible for helping fight infection and defend your body against germs.