Head and Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Cancer Overview

Head and neck cancers are malignant tumors that affect the neck, throat, sinuses, nose, or mouth.

These cancers can arise from the glands in your head and neck, from the cells in your sinuses, or other tissues in the area. However, the most common head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, which arise from the thin layers of cells that line the inside of your mouth, throat, nose, and larynx (voice box).

The main types of head and neck cancers are named for the part of the body that they arise from:

  • Oral cavity cancer (mouth)
  • Oropharyngeal cancer (middle part of the throat, including the tonsils)
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer (lower part of the throat)
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer (upper part of the throat, behind the nose)
  • Laryngeal cancer (voice box)
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer

Risk factors for developing head and neck cancer include tobacco use (including smoking and chewing tobacco), heavy alcohol use, certain strains of human papillomavirus (HPV), prolonged sun exposure (for lip cancer), and a history of Epstein-Barr virus (for nasopharyngeal cancer).

photo of head and neck surgeon ameya jategaonkar performing head and neck cancer surgery in an operating room at barrow neurological institute in phoenix arizona

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of head and neck are dependent on the kind of cancer and what part of the head and neck it is affecting. Generally speaking, the following symptoms can be associated with cancer of the head and neck:

  • Persistent sore throat that does not go away or gets worse over time
  • Unexplained lumps or sores in the oral cavity or throat that grow, are painful, and do not heal over time
  • New lumps or masses in the neck that do not go away over a short period of time
  • Changes in your voice
  • Difficulty or pain with swallowing that does not get better
  • Redness, irritation, or bleeding that affects your tongue, gums, or other parts of your mouth or throat
  • Swelling around the face or jaw, difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • Headaches, recurring sinus infections, frequent nosebleeds, swelling around the eyes or the upper jaw
  • Trouble breathing
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus), pain in the ears, and hearing difficulty

Head and Neck Cancer Treatments

Treatments for head and neck cancers can depend on the type of cancer, where it is located, and other factors. Typically, head and neck cancer treatments can be grouped into three broad areas and can involve any one or a combination of the three treatment methods. 

Surgical Treatment

Surgical treatment aims to remove as much of the head and neck tumor from the body as possible. Total surgical removal of a cancerous head and neck tumor is associated with the best prognosis, but this is not always possible if the tumor has invaded surrounding healthy tissue or if total removal would significantly impair your quality of life. 

Reconstructive surgery may also play a role in restoring both appearance and function after tumor removal

The surgical treatment of head and neck cancers is usually led by an otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeon.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also called radiation oncology, is used to destroy head and neck cancer cells. Precise beams of radiation are aimed at the tumor to destroy as many cancerous cells as possible while sparing nearby health tissue. 

Not all head and neck cancers respond to radiation therapy.  

Radiation therapy may be used in conjunction with surgery, chemotherapy, or both.

Medical Oncology

Medical oncology describes the use of chemotherapy or other drugs to slow, shrink, or eradicate head and neck cancer. A medical oncologist can recommend different kinds of these treatments based on the type of head and neck cancer you have and your personal medical history.

Common Questions about Head and Neck Cancer

How common are cancers of the head and neck?

In the United States, head and neck cancer accounts for about 3-6% of all cancer diagnoses.

What factors increase the risk for developing head and neck cancer?

Risk factors for head and neck cancers can be divided into modifiable and nonmodifiable risk factors. Modifiable risk factors are behaviors or habits that can be changed or ceased to reduce your risk. Nonmodifiable risk factors are things like genetics that cannot be changed.

Modifiable risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Alcohol and tobacco use
  • Industrial or occupational exposure to wood dust, asbestos, nickel dust, or formaldehyde
  • Exposure to radiation
  • Infection with certain viruses, like Epstein-Barr or human papillomavirus (HPV)

Nonmodifiable risk factors include ancestry and the presence of some genetic disorders.

How is head and neck cancer diagnosed?

If one of your medical providers suspects that you may have head and neck cancer, you will be given a referral for medical imaging.

If the imaging shows areas of potential head and neck cancer, a biopsy is conducted to determine what type of head and neck cancer is present and to help formulate a plan for treatment.

Information and Resources for Head and Neck Cancer

National Cancer Institute – Head and Neck Cancers

American Cancer Society – Head and Neck Cancers

THANC Foundation

Group 49
Head and neck cancer accounts for about 3-6% of all cancer diagnoses


  1. Mourad M, Jetmore T, Jategaonkar AA, Moubayed S, Moshier E, Urken ML. Epidemiological Trends of Head and Neck Cancer in the United States: A SEER Population Study. J Oral Maxillofac Surg. 2017 Dec;75(12):2562-2572. doi: 10.1016/j.joms.2017.05.008. Epub 2017 May 22. PMID: 28618252; PMCID: PMC6053274.
  2. Jategaonkar AA, Lerner DK, Cooke P, Kirke D, Genden EM, Trosman SJ. Implementation of a 4-dimensional computed tomography protocol for parathyroid adenoma localization. Am J Otolaryngol. 2021 May-Jun;42(3):102907. doi: 10.1016/j.amjoto.2021.102907. Epub 2021 Jan 12. PMID: 33460975.
Medically Reviewed by Ameya A. Jategaonkar, MD on August 19, 2022