Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer is the umbrella term given to cancers that begin in the larynx (voice box), nasal cavity (the passage behind the nose), oral cavity (mouth), paranasal sinuses (spaces around the nose, lined with cells that make mucus) or the pharynx (throat).

These cancers are nearly twice as common among men as they are women, and they are more often diagnosed in people over the age of 50. NCI researchers estimate that more than 52,000 men and women in this country were diagnosed with head and neck cancers in 2012.

Most head and neck cancers can be prevented and, if detected early, successfully treated. The main causes of head and neck cancers are the use of tobacco and alcohol, which can be avoided. Human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are another growing risk factor, and there are several ways to lower the chances of HPV infection.

Types of head and neck cancer

There are several types of head and neck cancer. Search this site to learn more about oral cancer and cancer of the larynx

Cancer of the hypopharynx. Cancer cells are found in the tissues in the bottom part of the throat.

Cancer of the nasopharynx. Cancer cells are found in the tissues of the upper part of the throat, located behind the nose.

Cancer of the oropharynx. Cancer cells are found in the middle part of the throat.

Cancer of the paranasal sinus and nasal cavity. Cancer cells are found in the tissues in the small hollow spaces around the nose, known as the paranasal sinus and nasal cavity. The sinuses keep the nose from drying out and are also a space that allows the voice to echo when a person is talking or singing. The nasal cavity is just behind the nose. Air passes through it on its way to the throat during breathing.

Cancer of the salivary gland. Cancer cells are found in the salivary glands. These glands are found just below the tongue, on the sides of the face in front of the ears, and under the jawbone. There are also salivary glands in different parts of the upper digestive tract. Salivary glands make saliva, which keeps food moist and helps dissolve food.

Metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. In this type of cancer, squamous cell cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. If the doctor cannot find out where the cancer started, it is called metastatic squamous cell cancer with unknown primary site.