In this Article

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer refers to a cancer that begins in one of these areas:

  • The voice box, also called the larynx [LAR-ingks]. The voice box helps you breathe and talk.
  • The nasal cavity or sinuses. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose. The sinuses are hollow spaces in the bones around the nose.
  • The throat, also called the pharynx [FAR-ingks]. This is the area from behind the nose to the top of the esophagus [ih-SOF-uh-gus]. It includes the nasopharynx [NA-zo FAR-ingks] (behind the nose), the oropharynx (back of the mouth) and hypopharynx (lower part of the throat).
  • The mouth. Mouth cancer is also called oral cancer. This includes the lips, tongue, mouth, and top of the throat.
  • The saliva glands. The saliva (or salivary) glands make saliva and help digest food. They are in the floor of the mouth near the jaw bones.


Symptoms can include:

  • A sore throat or swollen throat that doesn’t heal
  • A sore in the nose or mouth that doesn’t heal
  • A lump in the head or neck area that does not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • A change in the voice

When to See a Doctor

Head and neck cancer can often be cured if caught early. Call your healthcare provider if you have symptoms lasting longer than two weeks.


Anyone can get head and neck cancer. About twice as many men as women get it. Things that increase your risk are:

  • Age. Head and neck cancers are most common in people over age 50.
  • Tobacco. Most (about 3 of every 4) cases of head and neck cancer are linked to tobacco use. This includes both smoking and smokeless tobacco (snuff or chew).
  • Alcohol and tobacco. People who use both alcohol and tobacco have a much greater risk of most of these cancers than people who use either of these alone. (These are not risk factors for salivary gland cancers.)
  • HPV virus is linked to some head and neck cancers. HPV is a virus passed through sexual contact.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam. If you have symptoms, your healthcare provider will also take skin/tissue samples for testing. This is called a biopsy. A biopsy is the way to know for sure if your symptoms are caused by cancer or something else.

Other diagnostic tests include:



Treatment depends on:

  • The location of the cancer
  • How advanced the cancer is (the stage)
  • Results of lab tests
  • Your age and current health
  • Your preferences (choice)

Treatments can include surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy, or more than one of these. A cancer specialist can explain more about treatment choices.

Some people need rehabilitation therapy after treatment. This may include support with eating, speaking, or breathing.


To lower your risk of head and neck cancer, you can:

  • Quit smoking. Don’t use any type of tobacco.
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Practice safe sex.

Support and Resources

Cancer forms when cells in the body grow out of control and form a mass, or tumor. With most head and neck cancers, the tumor begins in the flat, moist cells that line the nose, mouth, and throat. These cells are called squamous [SKWAY-muhs] cells.