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Head and neck cancer

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on July 20, 2022.

Head and neck cancers, including mouth cancers, account for about 4 percent of all cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. An estimated 71,100 people are expected to be diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2024. Fortunately, the number of people with head and neck cancer and the mortality associated with the disease have been decreasing over the past 20 years.

Head and neck cancer is a term used to define cancer that develops in the mouth, throat, nose, salivary glands, oral cancers or other areas of the head and neck. Most of these cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, or cancers that begin in the lining of the mouth, nose and throat.

No head and neck cancer patient is the same. Get personalized treatment.

Because of their location, head and neck tumors and treatment-related side effects may impair patients’ ability to eat, swallow and breathe. At City of Hope, our multidisciplinary care team of head and neck cancer experts works with patients to help them make informed decisions about their treatment options, while also offering therapies to manage potential side effects.

This overview will cover the basic facts about head and neck cancer, including:

If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of head and neck cancer and want to schedule an appointment for diagnostic testing, or if you’re interested in a second opinion on your head and neck cancer diagnosis, call us or chat online with a member of our team.

What causes head and neck cancer?

Who gets head and neck cancer?

Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. These cancers are more common in people over the age of 50.

Hector Nunez

Hector N.

Head and Neck Cancer

"I met with my care team to evaluate my specific cancer and discuss treatment. Everyone was so warm, and made us feel safe and at peace. There is simply a wonderful atmosphere of togetherness at the hospital, and I knew it was where I wanted to go for treatment. Later, I learned that is one of the guiding principles of City of Hope—to treat patients as you would any member of your own family."


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Head and neck cancer types

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, forming in the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and throat. These squamous cell cancers can spread to other parts of the body, including the lymph nodes and lungs.

Types of head and neck cancer include:

  • Laryngeal cancer, a type of throat cancer affecting the larynx (sometimes called the voice box)
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer, which develops in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat behind the nose
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer, which develops in the hypopharynx, the lower part of the throat (sometimes called the gullet)
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer, which forms behind the nose
  • Salivary gland cancer, which is found in the saliva-producing glands near the jawbone
  • Oral cancers, which begin in the mouth
  • Oropharyngeal cancer, which develops in the oropharynx, the part of the throat behind the mouth
  • Tonsil cancer

Learn more about head and neck cancer types

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Diagnosing head and neck cancer

The cancer experts at City of Hope use the following tools and procedures to arrive at a head and neck cancer diagnosis:

Learn more about diagnostic procedures and staging head and neck cancer.

Head and neck cancer treatments

City of Hope approach to helping you maintain your quality of life

At City of Hope, we understand how head and neck cancers and their treatments can impact patients’ quality of life, sometimes in debilitating ways. The two most common treatment-related side effects for head and neck cancer, for example, are changes in voice and difficulty swallowing. Voice changes are typically caused by surgery to remove the vocal cords. Radiation therapy may also cause hoarseness. Trouble swallowing (dysphagia) may range from chronic dry mouth to an inability to swallow anything, including saliva.

That’s why each head and neck cancer patient has access to personalized supportive care therapies as part of his or her treatment plan. A speech therapist may help patients restore the patient’s ability to speak clearly, while also recommending exercises and other techniques to help manage difficulty swallowing, for example. A pain management physician, meanwhile, can help patients with both prescription narcotics and non-pharmaceutical strategies like nerve blockers and pain pumps to help them find relief.

Throat cancer patients who undergo extensive surgery to remove their tumors also have a reconstructive plastic surgeon on their care team who can help them rebuild their features and restore function. Some may undergo microvascular reconstruction surgery, where tissue from the abdomen, forearm or thigh may be used to reconstruct the nose, tongue or throat. And with 3D modeling, surgeons can map out a craniofacial repair by trying out patient-specific jaw positions with precise anatomical cutting guides. Others may undergo free flap surgery, a precise technique in the field of microvascular surgery that transplants tissue from one area to another by reconnecting tiny blood vessels less than four millimeters in diameter, with a suture thinner than a hair.

Patients who undergo a laryngectomy to remove the larynx (or voice box) may opt for a tracheoesophageal puncture, or TEP, which involves a head and neck surgeon placing a small, one-way valve between the trachea and the esophagus, allowing air to reach the lungs while blocking food, saliva and liquids. The valve also produces a vibration that the patient may use for voicing.

At City of Hope, treating cancer is about more than treating the disease. It requires a holistic, personalized approach to treating the whole patient.