Head and neck cancers are those that grow in and around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses and mouth. The majority of these cancers are squamous cell carcinomas that form in the cells lining the mucosal surfaces of the head and neck. They often spread to the lymph nodes, but are highly curable if discovered early.

Head and neck cancers classifications

Head and neck cancers are classified according to the area in the body where they form. They include:

  • Larynx.

    Also known as the voicebox, this is a tube-shaped organ in the neck containing the vocal cords. It helps us speak, swallow, and breathe.

  • Oral cavity.

    This includes the lips, tongue, gums, and mouth.

  • Salivary glands.

    These glands produce saliva to keep food moist and help break it down.

  • Pharynx.

    This hollow tube begins behind the nose and leads to the esophagus and trachea.

  • Nasal cavity.

    These are the hollow spaces in the bones around the nose, where air passes on the way to the throat.

Other cancers can form in this part of the body (brain tumors, esophageal cancer, thyroid cancer, etc.) but these behave very differently and are not classified as heck and neck cancers.

Head and Neck Cancer Risks

The biggest risk factors for head and neck cancers are tobacco (both cigarettes and chewing tobacco) and alcohol, especially when used together. 85 percent of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco. Other risk factors include exposure to industrial toxins (e.g., wood dust, paint fumes), dietary factors, human papillomavirus, Epstein-Barr virus, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), asbestos exposure and radiation. Certain ethnic groups (particularly Chinese) are more vulnerable, as are those from Southeast Asia who chew betel nut, and South Americans who drink mate, a beverage similar to tea.

Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms of head and neck cancers are similar to those associated with other conditions and may seem harmless at first. Common signs include a lump or sore that doesn’t heal, persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing and hoarseness. Patients may also experience bleeding from the mouth, swelling of the jaw, frequent congestion, sinus infections that don’t respond to treatment, headaches, earaches, facial numbness or paralysis, enlarged lymph nodes and an unexplained loss of weight.

Cancer Treatments

Treatment depends upon several factors. The size and location of the tumor, its stage, and the patient’s age and health must all be taken into consideration. Our team at California Head & Neck Specialists will make a decision based on these unique factors. Options might include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy or a combination of the above.