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Head & Neck Cancers

Types of Head & Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancer refers to a group of different types of cancer that start in this region of the body. They are typically categorized by where the cancer starts.

Oral Cavity Cancer

Includes, the front 2/3 of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (roof of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.

Laryngeal Cancer

Affects the larynx, located in the neck, which also contains the vocal cords. It includes the epiglottis, the small piece of tissue that covers the larynx and prevents food from entering the air passage.

Hypopharyngeal Cancer

The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that extends from the oral and nasal cavities in the head, down to the esophagus. The bottom part of the pharynx is called the hypopharynx.

throat anatomy

There are other types of head and neck cancers that can affect:

  • Salivary glands

  • Nasopharnyx (upper part of the throat)

  • Oropharnyx (middle part of the throat including the soft palate)

  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity

What is NOT Considered Head & Neck Cancer?

Cancers of the brain, the eye, the esophagus, and the thyroid gland, as well as those of the scalp, skin, muscles, and bones of the head and neck, are not usually classified as head and neck cancers.

Sometimes, cancerous squamous cells can be found in the lymph nodes of the upper neck when there is no evidence of cancer in other parts of the head and neck. When this happens, the cancer is called metastatic squamous neck cancer with unknown (occult) primary.

alcohol and smoking tobacco - primary causes of head and neck cancer

Causes of Head & Neck Cancers

The two primary risk factors for developing head and neck cancers are:

Tobacco use - smoking cigarettes, pipes, cigars, or chewing tobacco. 85% of all head and neck cancers are the result of tobacco use, although secondhand smoke may also increase the risk of developing these cancers.

Alcohol use - frequent and heavy drinking.

For those who use both tobacco and alcohol, the risk of head and neck cancer is even greater.

HPV is also a known risk factor for developing head and neck cancers. Some strains of the virus are more likely to be related to cancer development than others.


What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Head & Neck Cancers?

Symptoms of head and neck cancers typically depend on where the cancer started and whether it’s spread to other areas of the body. Some common signs and symptoms include:

  • A lump or sore in the nose, neck, or throat that does not heal or go away

  • Difficulty and/or pain when swallowing

  • Trouble breathing or speaking

  • Change or hoarseness in the voice that isn’t related to a virus (ie: cold or flu) or bacterial infection (ie: strep throat)

  • Swelling of the jaw

  • Chronic blocked sinuses or sinus infections

  • White or red patches on the gums, tongue, or lining of the mouth

  • Frequent headaches

  • Ear pain, trouble hearing, and/or ringing in the ears not related to a common ear infection

These can be symptoms of other, non-cancerous conditions. If you notice any of these lasting for more than a week or so, contact your doctor or your dentist for an evaluation.

Head & Neck Cancer Treatment in the South Chicago Suburbs

If you have received a cancer diagnosis, our team of experts will guide you through the timing of surgery and other treatments such as radiation therapy, targeted therapy, or other treatments that may be appropriate for you. Learn more about:

The treatment plan for each patient depends on a number of factors, including the type of head or neck cancer, the exact location of the tumor, the stage of the cancer, and the patient’s age and general health.

People who are diagnosed with HPV-positive oropharyngeal cancer may be treated differently than people with oropharyngeal cancers that are HPV-negative. Recent research has shown that patients with HPV-positive oropharyngeal tumors have a better prognosis and may do just as well on less intense treatment. An ongoing clinical trial is investigating this question.

Your oncologist will talk to you about which treatments, and any possible research trials, are the best treatment plan.

Questions To Ask Your Oncologist

While your oncologist will discuss the information you need to know, it's always best to have questions prepared to ask them so that you can be an active member in your treatment process. Communicating with your healthcare team is key to helping you stay informed about your health and future. Some questions to ask are:

  • What type of head and neck cancer do I have, and where is the tumor located?

  • What are my treatment options?

  • Is surgery necessary?

  • Do I need to have chemotherapy or another systemic cancer treatment?

  • Will I need physical therapy, speech therapy, or another type of rehabilitation after finishing treatment?

Read our blog for more questions to ask your cancer care team about head and neck cancer diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care.

Second Opinions for a Head & Neck Cancer Diagnosis

If you have received a cancer diagnosis and would like a second opinion, these are often approved by insurance. Our oncologists are available to provide second opinions. Don’t worry about offending a doctor if you tell them you’d like your records for a second opinion. This is a very normal process for many patients after a cancer diagnosis.