What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer refers to several types of cancers that affect the head and neck areas of the body. These cancers account for approximately 3 to 5 percent of all cancers in the United States. Head and neck cancer is more common in men and in people over age 50. These cancers are very treatable if caught early, and are easily preventable. The most common causes of head and neck cancer are tobacco and alcohol use.

Head and neck cancer includes cancers of the following areas:

  • Oral cavity: the lips, tongue, gums, lining of the cheeks and lips, bottom and top of the mouth, and behind the wisdom teeth. This is the most common type of head and neck cancer.
  • Salivary glands: These produce the saliva that keeps your mouth and throat moist. The main glands are on the bottom of the mouth and near the jawbone.
  • Sinuses: the hollow spaces in the bones surrounding the nose.
  • Nasal cavity: the hollow area inside the nose.
  • Tonsils.
  • Throat (pharynx).
  • Voicebox (larynx).
  • Ears.
  • Lymph nodes in the upper part of the neck.

Despite their locations, brain, eye, and thyroid cancers are not usually referred to as head and neck cancers.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer can be hard to diagnose, because symptoms are often mild and can mimic less serious conditions such as a cold or sore throat. These symptoms include:

  • A mouth or tongue sore that does not heal.
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth.
  • A persistent sore throat.
  • Swelling in the jaw, neck, or side of the face. This may cause dentures to fit poorly.
  • Frequent sinus infections that do not respond to antibiotics.
  • Neck pain that won't go away.
  • Frequent headaches.
  • Pain in the upper teeth.
  • Bleeding through the nose or in the mouth, or blood in the saliva.
  • Trouble swallowing.
  • Persistent earaches.
  • Trouble breathing or speaking.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important to check with your physician immediately. They may be signs of less serious conditions, but a thorough exam should be done.