Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer describes a variety of malignant (cancerous) tumors that affect the mouth, pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), sinuses, nose, thyroid and salivary glands (see Figure below). Most of these cancers begin in the squamous cells that make up the moist tissues lining the nose, mouth and throat; others form in the cells of the thyroid and salivary glands.

The areas affected by head and neck cancer treatment control vital functions, including breathing, swallowing, chewing and speaking. As a result, treating head and neck cancer is more than removing a tumor and killing cancer cells. It also includes repairing the body so that patients can still perform those functions.

The main treatment options for head and neck cancers have included surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and targeted therapy. Surgery or radiation therapy alone or in combination may be part of a person’s treatment plan. In 2016, the FDA approved the first immunotherapy drugs for head and neck cancer, specifically for recurrent or metastatic head and neck squamous cell carcinoma that progressed during or after chemotherapy that contained a platinum drug. These immunotherapy drugs are checkpoint inhibitors (see Strategies) that target the PD-1 protein on certain immune cells (T-cells).

Immunotherapy offers people with this type of head and neck cancer an alternative treatment option that is less invasive and disfiguring than some surgeries, bringing new hope to people with cancers in this area of the body.

Research continues to expand in developing new treatment options for head and neck cancers. Clinical trials are investigating the use of the current FDA-approved immunotherapy to treat early-stage head and neck cancers and to find other types of immunotherapies that boost the immune system in different ways. Immunotherapies approved for other types of cancers are being evaluated for head and neck cancers.

Clinical trials for immunotherapies are expanding, and you may qualify to participate. As a result, you may have access to some of the newest immunotherapy options. Talk with your doctor to determine if a clinical trial is right for you. Your doctor will discuss with you the best treatment options available to you for your type and stage of head and neck cancer.


FDA-Approved Immunotherapies for Head and Neck Cancer
As of 10/26/2016
nivolumab (Opdivo)
pembrolizumab (Keytruda)

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