What do head and neck cancers mean?
Head and neck cancers include the larynx, throat, lips, mouth, nose, and salivary glands. Tobacco use, heavy alcohol use, and human papillomavirus (HPV) infection increase the risk of head and neck cancer. Explore the links on this page to learn about the different types of head and neck cancer and how they are treated. We have information on prevention, screening, research, clinical trials, and more.
Head and neck cancer treatment depends on the type, location, and size of your cancer. Treatment for head and neck cancers often includes surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Therapies can be combined.
After treatment, recovery from head and neck cancers can lead to side effects such as hearing loss, trouble eating, dental problems, thyroid problems, trouble breathing, or talking to rehabilitation specialists and other professionals.
Head and neck cancer symptoms
Head and neck cancer symptoms vary depending on where cancer originates. Some common signs of head and neck cancer include the following:
- An ulcer in the mouth: An untreated broken area of skin (ulcer) is a sign of oral cancer. Most people with oral cancer have this symptom.
- A lump in the neck, jaw, or mouth: A lump in the jaw or mouth is a common sign of head and neck cancer. Lumps can also form on the lips.
A lump in the neck can be a sign of thyroid cancer. Or it can be caused by an enlarged lymph node. Swelling of one or more lymph nodes in the neck is a common symptom of head and neck cancer, including oral cancer and salivary gland cancer.
The bumps that come and go are usually not caused by cancer. Cancer usually forms a slow-growing lump.
- Pain or weakness in the face: Pain or discomfort in the face is a common symptom of salivary gland cancer and oral cancer.
- Neck Pain: People with thyroid cancer sometimes have lumps without swelling or mild pain in the front of the neck called thyroid nodules.
- Difficulty moving the jaw: A tumor in the head and neck with bones, muscles, or nerves in the jaw makes it difficult to open the mouth. Most people can open their mouths three fingers wide. If you have trouble opening this wide mouth, see your doctor. This condition is called lockjaw. You probably don’t have cancer, but it can cause other serious health problems.
- Hard to swallow: Head and neck cancer can cause pain or swelling when chewing and swallowing food. You may feel like food is stuck in your throat. You may feel a cough or food or liquid passing through your airways (windpipe).
- Speech problems: Head and neck cancer affects the throat. It may look different. It can be silent or hoarse. You feel like you have a cold from time to time. Or you may slow down some of your words or have difficulty pronouncing certain sounds.
- Ear pain or hearing loss: Earache is common with throat cancer. You may experience ringing in your ears.
- Laboured breathing: Throat cancer affects breathing. Nasal congestion is a common sign of breast cancer and other head and neck cancers. Some people may experience a runny nose.
- Sore throat: The pain or discomfort in the throat does not go away, which is one of the most common symptoms of throat cancer.
- White or red patches in the mouth or throat: An abnormally visible patch can be a sign of cancer or early changes. The white spots are called leukoplakia red spots are called erythroplasia.
- These patches are not cancerous: If left untreated, they can cause cancer. A yeast infection called oral yeast infection can also cause red and white patches.
- Weight Loss: Weight loss will be followed by constant fatigue and tiredness. Head and neck cancer is painful to eat and difficult to swallow, which can lead to weight loss.
Head and neck cancers are associated with many important risk factors. Two of the main risk factors are alcohol and tobacco, and the combined effect of alcohol and smoking is significantly greater than the risk of simply drinking or smoking. Research shows that the risk of smoking and heavy drinking is 35 times higher. Main risk factors:
- Drinking alcohol: Drinkers are 6 times more likely to be at risk than non-drinkers
- Smoking tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars, and pipes): Non-smokers are 7 times more likely to smoke
- Viruses: Human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV 16, is associated with oropharyngeal cancers and plays a role in other head and neck cancers. Exposure to the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may be related to the development of some head and neck cancers.
Other risk factors:
- Aging: Head and neck cancer is more common in people 40 and older.
- Men: Women are three times more likely than men to have head and neck cancer
- Family history: Parents, brothers, sisters, or people with head and neck cancer double the risk of certain types of head and neck cancer.
People of certain cultural backgrounds are more likely to develop certain types of head and neck cancers, those from South China or Southeast Asia. This is due to cultural practices such as chewing tobacco or eating salted fish (salted fish is high in nitrates, which react with proteins to form chemicals).
- Exposure to chemicals at work: Breathing in asbestos fibres, wood dust, dry-cleaning solvents, or certain paints or chemicals can increase the risk of certain types of head and neck cancer 6
- Low immunity: People with low immunity, those who have had a kidney transplant, have a higher risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
- Sunlight: Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can cause skin cancer on the lips.
- Areca Nut, Betel Nut, Skillet, or Gutka: Chewing or smoking these products can cause oral cancer.
- Eating adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of oral and oropharyngeal cancer. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about these risk factors.
Head and neck cancer treatment
We target head and neck tumors with evidence-based therapies such as radiation therapy, surgery, and chemotherapy, as well as immunotherapy and targeted therapy. Your multidisciplinary team of head and neck cancer specialists will answer your questions and recommend treatment options based on your specific diagnosis and needs. Treatments for this cancer:
- Surgery: Surgery is often the first-line treatment option for this type of cancer, but it can be combined with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
- Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy drugs called checkpoint inhibitors are designed to alter the proteins that cancer cells use to disguise the immune system.
- Target treatment: These drugs are designed to prevent cancer growth by targeting specific proteins that help cancer cells grow or divide.
- Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy treatments for head and neck cancer are generally assigned to patients whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
- Radiotherapy: Radiation therapy delivers high doses of radiation to tumor cells using technology designed to reduce damage to healthy tissues and organs.