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.

Audiologist: A medical professional who treats and manages hearing problems.

Maxillofacial prosthodontist: A specialist who can create custom dentures or other prostheses in the head and neck areas to help restore appearance, speech or eating after surgery.

Medical oncologist: A doctor who specializes in treating cancer with drug therapies.

Nutritionist: A professional who can help you face the unique challenges of staying nourished during and after head and neck cancer treatment.

Oncologic dentist or oral oncologist: A dentist who is experienced in caring for people with head and neck cancer.

Otolaryngologist: A doctor who specializes in certain diseases of the head and neck (also known as an ear, nose and throat, or ENT, doctor). Head and neck oncologic surgeons are otolaryngologists who have received specialized training to treat patients with head and neck cancers.

Psychologist/psychiatrist/therapist: These mental health professionals address the emotional, psychological and behavioral needs of the person with cancer and those of his or her family.

Radiation oncologist: A doctor who specializes in treating cancer using radiation therapy.

Reconstructive/plastic surgeon: A doctor who specializes in reconstructive surgery to repair damage caused by treatment.

Rehabilitation specialist/physical therapist: A health care professional who helps patients improve their physical strength and ability to move.

Speech-language pathologist: This health care professional specializes in communication and swallowing disorders and helps patients regain their speaking, swallowing and oral motor skills after cancer treatment that affects the head, mouth and neck.

Surgical oncologist: A doctor who treats cancer using surgery. There are many types of cancer that are treated with surgery; however, only specialized surgical oncologists treat head and neck cancers.

As you consider treatment options, ask about palliative care, which focuses on providing physical and emotional relief for symptoms and side effects. It’s often mistaken for hospice care, but it actually accompanies your regular treatment. Starting it early in the treatment cycle has been shown in some cases to improve quality of life and extend survival rates.

The following pages explore several types of head and neck cancer and include information about staging, treatment options, clinical trials, reconstructive surgery, side effect management and more. You are encouraged to surround yourself with supporters, such as friends, family members and people who have been through a situation similar to yours.


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




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