Head and neck cancer refers to several types of cancers that affect your mouth, throat or other parts of your head and neck. The most common symptom is a persistent sore throat. You can reduce your risk by avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol and preventing an HPV infection. These cancers are often treatable if caught early, and most are preventable.
Head and neck cancer includes several types of cancer that usually start in the cells lining your mouth, throat (pharynx) or voice box (larynx). These cells are called squamous cells. Less commonly, head and neck cancers form in your sinuses or salivary glands.
Most head and neck cancers are classified as squamous cell carcinoma, after the cell that changes into a cancer cell.
Head and neck cancers include:
Head and neck cancers sometimes spread to the lymph nodes in the upper part of your neck.
Men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB) are up to three times more likely to get diagnosed than women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB). Age plays a role, too. Most people get diagnosed after age 50.
Certain factors raise your cancer risk, especially tobacco and alcohol use and HPV infection.
About 900,000 cases get diagnosed worldwide each year. In the U.S., head and neck cancers account for about 3% to 4% of all cancer diagnoses.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
Head and neck cancer can be hard to diagnose because symptoms are often mild and can mimic less serious conditions like a cold or sore throat. A sore throat that doesn’t get better is the most common symptom of a head and neck cancer.
Check with a healthcare provider immediately if you notice any of these symptoms. They may be signs of something less serious, but you’ll need a thorough exam to be sure.
Head and neck cancers most often affect men and people AMAB over 50. Other than sex and age, the biggest risk factors are using tobacco, drinking too much alcohol and HPV infections. Some risk factors vary depending on the cancer type.
Early detection is key to successful cancer treatment. Exams can easily detect most head and neck cancers. A healthcare provider will perform an exam and order diagnostic tests.
These exams and tests might include:
Cancer staging helps healthcare providers determine how advanced cancer is and plan treatment. Healthcare providers use the TNM (tumor, node, metastasis) system to stage head and neck cancers.
They consider factors like a tumor’s size and location (T), whether cancer has spread to lymph nodes (N) and whether cancer has spread to other parts of your body, or metastasized (M). Using this information, they assign a number ranging from I to IV, with higher numbers meaning more advanced disease.
There’s different staging depending on the location of the cancer and the cancer stage.
The cancer’s stage, along with your age and general health, will determine your treatment plan.
The three main treatments are surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Your healthcare provider may also recommend newer treatments like targeted therapy and immunotherapy or suggest you participate in a clinical trial.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend palliative care. Palliative care providers include doctors, nurses, social workers and others who are experts at helping people navigate long-term illnesses. They can complement your cancer care by helping you make treatment decisions and manage everyday affairs. Palliative care can improve your quality of life, no matter your cancer stage.
Cancer treatments can cause various side effects, depending on the type of treatment and where your tumor’s located. For instance, surgery to remove a large tumor may change your appearance. Some people treated for head and neck cancers have trouble breathing, eating, swallowing or talking afterward.
Ask your healthcare provider about potential side effects, including ways to manage them. For instance, reconstructive surgery or prosthetics may help improve your appearance following treatment. Regular visits with a speech-language pathologist can help with speaking and swallowing difficulties.
You can take steps to prevent most head and neck cancers. To protect yourself:
If you’ve already had cancer, quitting tobacco and alcohol can reduce your risk of cancer recurring (returning). Seeing a healthcare provider at the first sign of symptoms can also prevent cancers from progressing.
It can be. The chance of a cure is best if your healthcare provider finds your cancer early and treats it immediately. Small tumors that haven’t spread are also potentially curable.
Your outlook depends on many factors, including cancer type, age, general health and response to treatment. Ask your healthcare provider about your prognosis based on your unique cancer diagnosis.
The survival rate for people with Stage I or Stage II cancer ranges from 70% to 90%. These numbers mean that 70% to 90% of people diagnosed with a head and neck cancer at these stages are alive after five years.
Keep in mind, though, that these numbers are general. They don’t account for your cancer type, health or treatment response. They don’t consider the effects of newer treatments on improving the survival rate. Discuss these factors with your healthcare provider to better understand your prognosis.
Even if your provider removes your tumor, you’ll still need follow-up care, physical exams and tests to ensure you receive immediate treatment if the cancer returns. Depending on your treatment, you may need physical or speech therapy to cope with side effects.
Follow your provider’s guidance about caring for yourself during recovery, scheduling follow-up visits and recognizing signs that the cancer’s returned.
Don’t hesitate to ask your healthcare provider questions about your diagnosis. It’s a good idea to bring a friend or family member with you during appointments to ensure you get all of your questions answered. Questions may include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Many head and neck cancers are treatable with surgery and radiation if they’re found early. See a healthcare provider immediately if you experience any symptoms of head and neck cancer, especially if you engage in high-risk activities like smoking or using tobacco. Early detection and treatment are the best ways to fight cancer once you’ve been diagnosed. Ask your healthcare provider about the best treatment options, depending on your health and cancer stage.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/14/2022.
Learn more about our editorial process.