Head & Neck Cancers

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Head & Neck Cancers Facts

“Head and neck cancers” is a collective name for cancers that begin in certain structures of the head or neck, including the mouth (oral cavity), throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), nasal passages, sinuses, and salivary glands.

The following cancers are covered separately on the website:

What Are Head & Neck Cancers?

Head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells. Squamous cells make up the lining of many areas of your body, including your mouth, throat, nose, and sinuses.

  • If cancer is limited to the outermost layer of the lining (epithelium), it is referred to as squamous cell carcinoma.
  • If cancer goes below the epithelium into the next layer (mucosa, or mucous membrane), it’s called invasive squamous cell carcinoma.
  • If cancer starts in the salivary glands, it is called adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, mucoepidermoid carcinoma, or acinic cell carcinoma.
  • If cancerous squamous cells are found in the lymph nodes of the neck but not in other parts of the head or neck, the cancer is called metastatic squamous neck cancer. This indicates that the cancer spread to the neck from one of the many other areas in the body that have squamous cells.

Who Is at Risk?

Eduardo MendezMost head and neck cancers are found in people over age 50. These cancers account for only 3 percent of all cancers in the United States.

According to the National Institutes of Health, at least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are related to use of tobacco—which includes cigarettes, pipes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco and snuff)—and alcohol, especially beer or hard liquor. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at the greatest risk for these cancers.

While men are two to three times more likely than women to have head or neck cancer, the rates in women have been rising, along with their growing use of tobacco and alcohol.

The number of cases related to human papillomavirus (HPV), the same virus that causes cervical cancer in women, seems to be on the rise also. Cancers at the base of the tongue and tonsils may also be related to HPV infection, especially infection with HPV-16. Cancers from HPV are increasing in the United States, while oral cancers related to other risk factors are decreasing.

Other risk factors include:

  • Being exposed to asbestos or wood dust
  • Eating preserved or salted foods
  • Having poor oral hygiene and health
  • Having had radiation therapy to the head and neck area
  • Having Epstein-Barr virus infection