Head & Neck


Head and neck cancer describes a variety of malignant (cancerous)
tumors that affect the oral cavity (mouth), pharynx (throat), larynx
(voice box), nose, sinuses, salivary glands and thyroid.

A general understanding of cancer may help you better understand
your diagnosis. Cells are the basic units in the body, and they typically
divide in an orderly fashion. When they are worn out or damaged, they
die, and new cells replace them. However, when these cells continue to
grow and divide out of control quickly instead of dying, they form a
disorganized mass composed of billions of cells. This mass is called a
tumor and it can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant. Malignant
tumors have the ability to metastasize (spread).

The type of tissue in which the cancer begins and the location in the body where it first develops is referred to as the primary site. Most head and neck cancers begin in the squamous cells, or the thin cells that line the moist tissues inside of the mouth and throat. Other cancers form in the cells of the thyroid and salivary glands.



After receiving your diagnosis, consider seeking a second opinion. Different doctors have different levels of expertise and experience, and it will benefit you to have as much information as possible. Another opinion may confirm the original diagnosis and treatment plan or offer additional information to consider. Never feel guilty about advocating for yourself. Most doctors welcome the fact that you’re committed to finding the best care possible and will often give you a referral. Some insurance companies even require a second opinion.

A multi-disciplinary team will treat the physical and emotional aspects of your head and neck cancer. Here are some of the doctors, specialists, nurses, dentists and other health care professionals you may consult with.

Audiologist: Treats and manages health issues related to hearing (auditory).

Case manager/social worker: Advocates for individuals undergoing cancer treatment and helps identify resources to meet their medical and personal needs.

Head and neck oncologic surgeon: Provides expertise in surgical procedures of the head and neck (an otolaryngologist with specialized surgical training).

Maxillofacial prosthodontist: Creates custom dentures or other prostheses to help restore facial appearance, speech or the ability to eat normally.

Medical oncologist: Treats cancer with chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and/or other medications.

Nutritionist/dietitian: Helps meet nutritional challenges that arise during and after treatment.

Oncologic dentist or oral oncologist: Provides expert dental or oral care for people with head and neck cancer.

Oncology nurse: Provides inpatient or outpatient care in a cancer treatment facility.

Otolaryngologist: Treats diseases of the ear, nose and throat; also called an ENT.

Palliative care specialist: Works to provide physical and emotional relief for cancer symptoms and treatment-related side effects.

Patient navigator/nurse navigator: Serves as a guide through diagnosis, treatment and follow-up; may also be a patient advocate. Identifies barriers to treatment, such as the need for transportation or help with copays and deductibles, and accesses resources to resolve such barriers. He or she is also commonly involved with coordination throughout the continuum of care.

Psychologist/psychiatrist/therapist: Addresses mental health needs and behavioral issues of people with cancer and their loved ones.

Radiation oncologist: Treats cancer using radiation therapy.

Reconstructive/plastic surgeon: Uses reconstructive procedures and techniques to help restore function and appearance after cancer treatment (see Reconstructive Surgery).

Rehabilitation specialist/physical therapist: Helps restore movement and build physical strength after cancer treatment.

Speech-language pathologist: Offers strategies and techniques for regaining or improving the ability to speak, swallow or use other oral motor skills following treatment.

Surgical oncologist: Treats cancer using surgical procedures.


Know the Risks

Many head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco and alcohol use. The risk is higher for people who use both tobacco and alcohol than for people who use only one or the other. Because of the increased chance of developing another primary cancer, it is important to be aware of these and other risk factors.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is particularly associated with cancers of the oropharynx (back of the throat), including the tonsils and base of tongue. HPV vaccines are now available to help prevent HPV-related cancer and other conditions
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Chewing tobacco
  • Excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Prolonged exposure to the sun, which is linked to cancer of the lip

For more information about reducing your risk of head and neck cancer, talk with a member of your health care team or use the following resources.


Additional Resources