Overview of Head and Neck Cancers
Head and neck cancer refers to a group of different types of cancer that start in this region of the body and may include: the larynx (voice box), hypopharynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands. They are typically categorized by where the cancer starts:
- Lip and Oral Cavity: Includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.More information about lip and oral cavity cancer can be found on Maryland Oncology’s Lip & Oral Cancer Section.
- Pharynx: The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); the oropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).The type of cancer found in the hypopharynx is called hypopharyngeal cancer. More information about hypopharyngeal cancer can be found on Maryland Oncology’s Hypopharyngeal Cancer Overview page.
- Larynx: The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.This type of cancer in the larynx is called laryngeal cancer. More information about laryngeal cancer can be found on Maryland Oncology’s Laryngeal Cancer Overview page.
- Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.
- Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva. Salivary glands contain many different types of cells that can become cancerous, so there are many different types of salivary gland cancer.
Cancers of the brain, the eye, the esophagus, and the thyroid gland, as well as those of the scalp, skin, muscles, and bones of the head and neck, are not usually classified as head and neck cancers.
Sometimes, cancerous squamous cells can be found in the lymph nodes of the upper neck when there is no evidence of cancer in other parts of the head and neck. When this happens, the cancer is called metastatic squamous neck cancer with unknown (occult) primary. More information about this cancer type can be found in Metastatic Squamous Neck Cancer with Occult Primary (PDQ®).
Maryland Oncology offers an integrated team-oriented approach to provide you with the best possible care. We are also eager to explain the facts and answer your questions at every step of the way.
Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancers
Tobacco and alcohol use can affect the risk of developing head and neck cancers. However, having a risk does not mean that you will develop cancer; like not having risk factors does not mean that you won’t develop a head or neck cancer. Always consult your doctor if you think you may be at risk for cancer.
Risk factors for head and neck cancers include the following:
- Using tobacco products.
- Heavy alcohol use.
- Being exposed to natural sunlight or artificial sunlight (such as from tanning beds) over long periods of time.
- Being male.
- Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).
Visit the National Cancer Institute where this information and more can be found about Head and Neck Cancer or ask your Maryland Oncology Hematology’s cancer care team questions about your individual situation.