What is Head and Neck Cancer?

5 min read

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer is a broad term that covers several types of cancer that start in the head or neck area including the throat, nose, mouth, sinuses, and larynx. Each of these is an individual type of cancer with different treatments:

  • Oral cavity, which includes the lips, inside of the cheeks, gums, and front two-thirds of the tongue.
  • Larynx, which contains the vocal cords, also referred to as the voice box.
  • Throat, also referred to as the pharynx, is divided into three subsections:
    • the nasopharynx - the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose
    • the oropharynx - the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate at the back of the mouth and the the base of the tongue, and the tonsils
    • the hypopharynx - the lower part of the pharynx that attaches to the esophagus
  • Nasal cavity and sinuses, which develop in the areas of the nasal cavity and the sinuses. 
  • Salivary glands, which start in the area inside and near the mouth, specifically in the glands that produce saliva. 

Cancers in the head and neck area that do not fall into the category of “head and neck cancer” include thyroid cancer and brain cancer. 

Who Is At Risk for Head and Neck Cancers?

There are some lifestyle choices that increase the risk of developing head and neck cancers. These include:

  • Tobacco use. Smoking tobacco can drastically increase your risk of getting these types of cancer. This includes smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or inhaling it through pipes or cigars. It is estimated that 70% to 80% of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. 
  • Drinking alcohol. Studies show that drinking alcohol is another risk factor for oral, head, and neck cancer. According to the CDC, drinking any kind of alcohol, including wine, beer, or liquor can lead to cancer, and the National Cancer Institute reports that "people who consume 50 or more grams of alcohol per day (approximately 3.5 or more drinks per day) have at least a two to three times greater risk of developing these cancers than nondrinkers."

Cancer experts believe that people who use tobacco and alcohol together are at a greater risk of developing head, neck, and oral cancers.

Exposure to certain viruses is related to an increased risk of head and neck cancer. 

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Sexual activity with a person who has HPV is the most common way someone gets HPV. HPV-induced throat (oropharyngeal) cancer is most commonly diagnosed in non-smoking, middle-aged, white males who have repeated neck masses that don't go away after antibiotics. According to the CDC, HPV (particularly HPV type 16) causes 70% of all oropharyngeal – or throat – cancers in the U.S. While the HPV vaccine was created to prevent cervical cancer and other reproductive system cancers, it does also protect against the types of HPV known to cause oropharyngeal cancers. 
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection

Other risk factors for head and neck cancers include previous radiation exposure to the head and neck as well as genetics. 

To help lower the risk of getting one of these cancers, you can take steps to reduce your exposure to those things known to make you more likely to develop them. Consider quitting tobacco, cutting back on your alcohol intake, practicing safe sex, and staying on top of your health checkups.

Screening & Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

The signs and symptoms of head and neck cancers vary depending on the location of the type of cancer. 

A dentist will screen your mouth for signs of oral cavity cancer during your regular checkups. Oral cancer can look like a sore, a white patch, a brown spot, or a red patch in the mouth or on the lips. A dentist may also notice an unusual lump or swelling in the mouth that should be tested further.

There are other symptoms that you may only be able to notice such as:

  • Pain in the upper teeth and swelling around the eyes
  • Numbness around the face and chin, including the tongue
  • Headaches or ringing in the ears
  • Voice changes without cause such as a cold or laryngitis
  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing 
  • A lump, thickening, or mass in the cheeks or neck
  • Chronic infections in the sinuses without another cause
  • Repeated nosebleeds 

It’s important to keep in mind that many of these symptoms can be caused by other, less serious conditions. Should you experience any of the symptoms mentioned above, be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor or dentist so a proper diagnosis can be made. And don’t miss your dental appointments, especially if you’re at a higher level of risk. 

Treatments for Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer and the location of the cancer. The goal is to either remove the disease and/or control further growth of the disease. Your individual treatment plan also depends on factors like the stage of your cancer, your age, and your overall health. 

Most head and neck treatment plans include a combination of the following:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor and adjacent areas
  • Radiation therapy
  • Chemotherapy
  • Targeted therapies to treat specific characteristics of cancer cells
  • Immunotherapy

The specialists at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers will work together to develop a personalized treatment plan based on each individual’s needs and preferences. It will also include a plan for any reconstructive surgery or rehabilitation needed to improve your quality of life. 

I’ve Been Diagnosed With Head and Neck Cancer. Now What? 

It’s only natural that receiving a head or neck cancer diagnosis can leave you feeling overwhelmed. But, the more you understand about your type of cancer and recommended treatment plan, the better you can cope. 

Making informed decisions about your care is also an important part of your treatment plan, which starts with scheduling an appointment with your doctor to ask some important questions. 

Some questions you may want to ask your doctor might include:

  • What kind of head and neck cancer do I have? Where is the tumor located?
  • What stage is my cancer, and how will this affect my cancer treatment?
  • Is a clinical trial an option for me? 
  • What is the goal of each treatment?
  • Who will be a part of my treatment team?
  • How will this treatment affect my daily life?
  • Will any lymph nodes need to be removed?
  • If surgery is recommended, what will recovery look like? Will it affect my ability to chew or swallow?
  • Are there any short-term or long-term side effects I should worry about? 
  • Did HPV cause my tumor? Should I be screened for other types of cancer related to HPV?
  • What support services can you refer to me? 
  • Should I seek a second opinion?

It may be helpful to write down your questions ahead of time and take notes while speaking with your doctor. You may also want to bring a friend or family member with you for support. 

Request a consultation at one of our cancer centers in Colorado including the greater Denver area, Colorado Springs, Boulder and the front range.