What are cancers of the head and neck?

Cancers of the head and neck include cancers that start in several places in the head and throat, not including brain cancers or cancers of the eye.

These cancers can start—

In the sinuses (the spaces around the nose on the inside of the skull). Inside and behind the nose.

In the mouth, including the tongue, the gums, and the roof of the mouth.

In the back of the mouth and the throat (pharynx), which includes three sections called the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and hypopharynx.

In the larynx (voice box).

On the lips, although cancer on the lips is a type of skin cancer. In the glands that make saliva for the mouth.

What causes cancers of the head and neck?

  1. Alcohol and tobacco use (including secondhand smoke and smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, hypopharynx, and voice box. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone. Most head and neck squamous cell carcinomas of the mouth and voice box are caused by tobacco and alcohol use.

In Assam, offering tamul-paan (betel nut and leaf) with raw tobacco to guests is a common practice. People consume paan and are addicted to zarda across all ages, so much so that in the Northeast, tobacco is kind of ingrained in the culture. This has led to the high prevalence of head and neck cancers in this region.

  • Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV type 16, is a risk factor for oropharyngeal cancers that

involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue.

  • Occupational exposure to wood dust is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer. Certain industrial exposures, including exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the voice box. Industrial exposure to wood dust, nickel dust, or formaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.
  • Radiation exposure. Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer, is a risk factor for cancer of the salivary glands

What Are the Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers?

In the mouth, cancer can cause—

A white or red sore that does not heal on the gums, tongue, or inner side of the cheek.

Swelling in the jaw.

Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth. A lump or thickening.

Problems with dentures.

At the back of the mouth (pharynx), cancer can cause— Trouble breathing or speaking.

A lump or thickening.

Trouble chewing or swallowing food.

A feeling that something is stuck in the throat. Continuous pain in the throat.

Pain or ringing in the ears.

In the voice box (larynx), cancer can cause— Pain while swallowing.

Ear pain.

In the sinuses and nasal cavity, cancer can cause— Blocked sinuses that don’t clear.

Sinus infections that do not respond to treatment with antibiotics. Bleeding through the nose.


Pain and swelling around the eyes. Pain in the upper teeth.

Problems with dentures.

About twice as many men as women get head and neck cancers. They are more likely to be diagnosed in people who are over 50 years of age.

How are head and neck cancers treated?

Treatment options for patients with this type of cancer include:

  •  Surgery—either alone or in combination with radiation therapy and/or chemotherapy.
  •  Immunotherapy, to help the immune system recognize and attack cancer cells.
  • Targeted therapy, including drugs targeting epidermal growth factor

receptors (EGFR).

  • Chemotherapy, although this type of treatment is typically reserved for patients whose cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
  • Radiation therapy, which delivers high doses of radiation to tumor cells in the head and neck using technology designed to reduce damage to healthy tissue and organs.

The treatment plan for an individual patient depends on a number of factors, including the location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the person’s age and general health.

How can you reduce your risk for Head and Neck cancers?

You can lower your risk of getting head and neck cancer in several ways—

  1. Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. Quitting smoking lowers the risk for cancer.
  2. Don’t use smokeless tobacco products.
  3. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
  4. Talk to your doctor about HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine can prevent new infections with the types of HPV that most often cause oropharyngeal and other cancers. It is most effective in preventing HPV if given at a young age (up to age 26).

Dr. Nilaxi Khataniar

Consultant, Radiation Oncology

Yashoda Hospitals, Somajiguda (Hyderabad)

9 years of Experience in the field of Radiation Oncology.