Cancer is a disease like no other, with its method of infection, growth and development and even with treatment methods. Its causes are puzzling and varied, in some cases the cancer is unwarranted or inexplicable. No body part seems safe from this disorder. In this article, learn more about cancer which occurs in the head and neck area of the human body.

Cancer in the Head and Neck

Head and neck cancer is a generic term that refers to cancer which has originated or is centered in the head or neck region of an individual's body. Mostly the lining or soft tissue areas of such regions are affected. There are nearly 30 different areas or parts of the head and neck, that could get infected with cancer, they are grouped broadly as per their occurrence in the following areas:

Cancer in the oral cavity or mouth is known as oral cancer. Cancer which occurs in the throat region just behind the mouth (oropharynx) is called oropharyngeal cancer. Specific parts are:
  • The roof of the mouth (hard palate)
  • The floor of the mouth (under the tongue)
  • The tongue
  • Inner lining or area of the lips and cheeks (buccal mucosa)
  • The base of the tongue
  • Side walls of the throat
  • Back wall of the throat
  • Gingiva (gums)
  • Area behind the wisdom teeth
The type of cancerous growth in this region is squamous cell carcinomas.

The sensitive nasal cavity lining and the skin in the nostrils are both susceptible to cancer. From the nasopharynx (the top part of the throat immediately behind the nose) to the paranasal sinus area (fleshy parts alongside the nose on the face) and in between, each part of the nose can be affected by cancerous growth.

Lymph nodes located in the upper region of the neck are also vulnerable to cancer. A special property of head and neck cancers is that the cancer from the larynx, mouth, nasopharynx and paranasal sinus can spread to these nodes.

Salivary Glands
Cancer in this part of the human body is fairly rare. There are 3 main glands that could get affected:
  • Sublingual gland (under the tongue)
  • Submandibular glands (below the jawbone)
  • Parotid glands (the highest part of the mouth, below the ears)
The larynx and the thyroid gland are 2 parts of the throat which could develop cancer. Out of these, cancer in the larynx is more common. The larynx is the "voice box" or the main organ responsible for a human to produce voice or sound. Cancer can attack the vocal cords and folds or the surrounding tissues.


With cancer in such a vast and intricate region of the human anatomy, signs can be varied and are listed below based on the area of occurrence:

Oral Cancer
  • Loss of weight
  • Difficulty and pain in swallowing and chewing
  • Difficulty in talking
  • Weird taste in the mouth
  • Tongue and mouth sores that do not heal
  • A lump or ulcer in the mouth region which does not pain at first
  • Colored and pale patches in the mouth
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Swelling along the jaw
  • Bad breath
  • Slurring of speech
  • Change in voice tone and pitch
  • Hoarse or strained voice
  • Sore and painful throat
  • Pain while swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Repeatedly blocked nose
  • Repeated sinus infections
  • Nose bleeding
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Sense of smell affected
  • Mucus leakage
Salivary GlandNeck
  • Swollen jaw or chin area
  • Facial muscles are numb
  • Aches and pain in the chin or face
  • Lymph nodes are enlarged or swollen
  • Heavy feeling around the neck
  • Neck and throat pain
A predominant sign among the different head and neck cancer symptoms is a lump or swollen area, which is painless and just there. After sometime, pain can develop and the swelling can increase in size or another lump could develop.


For diagnosis of cancerous growth, the first step is a physical examination and analysis of medical history and symptoms. A tissue sample test is always conducted to analyze the biological makeup of the growth and the presence of cancerous cells. An endoscopy or biopsy is the test procedure conducted over here. X-rays and scans like MRI, PET or CT are used to create a graphical image and examine the extent of growth.

Treatment depends on the age and health status of the individual, location of the tumor in the body, stage of growth and if the growth has spread. Surgery is the predominant method of treatment and in most cases, is highly effective in curing the disease. The patient's speech and eating ability is affected for some time. Radiation therapy is also practiced, albeit at a slightly lesser rate. Its possible side effects are a reason for reluctance on both the doctor's and patient's part to opt for such a procedure. Chemotherapy is used here as a cure and a preventive measure, to stop the cancer from spreading to other body areas. Head and neck cancers can recur or spread rapidly and to counter such an advance, the powerful effect of chemotherapy drugs are required.

The obvious and notable culprits responsible for the occurrence of cancer in the head and neck area are tobacco and alcohol. Repeated tobacco intake in any form, cigars, cigarettes, hookah, chewing and even as snuff, is one of the main causes of cancer in the mouth, larynx, tongue and throat. Heavy alcohol intake also leads to cancerous growths. Certain viruses like Epstein-Barr and HPV are rarer causes. On the whole, the head and neck region is one of the most cancer prone areas among the different body areas and such cases account for 5% of all cancer cases. But this region also has a high rate of total recovery. If any of the above symptoms are detected or observed in time, then with proper treatment and medication, this form of cancer can be cured.