Head and Neck Cancer: Frequently Asked Questions

Illustration of the anatomy of the respiratory system, adult

Q: What is head and neck cancer?

A: Head and neck cancer is the term given to cancers that start in the head and neck region. These are cancers that begin in any of these places:

  • Mouth, also called the oral cavity

  • Nasal cavity, the passage behind the nose

  • Paranasal sinuses, which are the spaces around the nose, lined with cells that make mucus. They also provide a space that allows the voice to echo when you are talking or singing. 

  • Salivary glands, glands that make saliva

  • Throat, known as the pharynx

  • Voice box, called the larynx

Q: What are the types of head and neck cancer?

A: There are many types of head and neck cancer, including the following:

  • Cancer of the hypopharynx. Cancer cells are found in the tissues of the bottom part of the throat.

  • Cancer of the nasopharynx. Cancer cells are found in the tissues of the upper part of the throat, located behind the nose.

  • Cancer of the oropharynx. Cancer cells are found in the middle part of the throat.

  • Cancer of the paranasal sinus and nasal cavity. Cancer cells are found in the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.

  • Cancer of the salivary gland. Cancer cells are found in the salivary glands. They are found just below the tongue, on the sides of the face in front of the ears, and under the jawbone. 

Q: What are the risk factors for head and neck cancer?

A:  Certain factors can make one person more likely to get head and neck cancer than another person. These are called risk factors. However, just because you have one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get head and neck cancer. In fact, you can have many risk factors and still not develop the disease. On the other hand, you can have no risk factors and still get head and neck cancer.

  • Tobacco use. Smokers are more likely to get head and neck cancer than nonsmokers.

  • Alcohol consumption. Some reports have found people who drink alcohol heavily (2 or more drinks a day) are at an increased risk. Those who smoke and drink heavily are at an even greater risk than people who do not.

  • Gender. Head and neck cancer is 2 to 3 times more common in men than in women. 

  • Race. Some types of head and neck cancer are more common among African Americas than among white Americans.

  • Sun exposure. Spending a lot of time in the sun without protecting your skin and lips is linked to cancer in the lip area as well as skin cancer on the face, head, and neck.

  • Certein infections. Some human papillomavirus (HPV) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infections are strongly linked to head and neck cancer.

  • Age. People older than age 40 are at increased risk for head and neck cancer.

  • Poor mouth care. Not taking care of the mouth and teeth may increase the risk of head and neck cancer.

  • Poor diet. A diet that is low in some vitamins and minerals might increase the risk of head and neck cancer. 

  • Workplace exposures. People exposed to wood dust, paint fumes, asbestos, and some other chemicals appear to be at increased risk for head and neck cancer. 

  • Weakened immune system. People whose immune system is suppressed, such as people who have had organ transplants, are at higher risk for some kinds of head and neck cancer. 

Q: What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

A:  Many people with head and neck cancer experience symptoms such as:

  • A growth or sore in the mouth

  • A lump in the neck

  • A lump or sore inside the nose that will not heal

  • A sore throat that does not go away

  • Blocked sinuses that will not clear

  • Chronic sinus infections

  • Cough or hoarseness that does not go away

  • Coughing up blood

  • Difficulty swallowing, speaking, or breathing

  • Frequent headache or pain around the nose, cheeks, jaws, or forehead

  • Frequent nosebleeds or ones that don't stop

  • Muscle weakness

  • Numbness in the face

  • Pain in the ear

  • Swelling of the eyes or under the chin or around the jaw

  • Vomiting

These symptoms may be caused by cancer or by other problems. It is important to see a doctor about any symptoms like these so that the problem can be diagnosed and treated as early as possible.

Q: Should everyone get a second opinion after a diagnosis of head and neck cancer?

A Many people with cancer get a second opinion from another doctor. There are many reasons to get a second opinion. Here are some of those reasons:

  • Not feeling comfortable with the treatment decision

  • Being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer

  • Having different options for how to treat the cancer

  • Not being able to see a cancer expert

Q: How can someone get a second opinion for head and neck cancer?

A: There are many ways to get a second opinion:

  • Ask a primary care doctor. Your doctor may be able to recommend a specialist. This may be a surgeon, medical oncologist, or radiation oncologist. Sometimes these doctors work together at cancer centers or programs.

  • Call the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service. The number is 800-4-CANCER (800-422-6237). They provide information about treatment facilities, including cancer centers and other programs supported by the National Cancer Institute.

  • Seek other options. Check with a local medical society, hospital, medical school, or cancer advocacy group to get names of doctors who can give you a second opinion. Or ask other people who have had your type of cancer to refer you to someone.

Q: How is head and neck cancer treated?

A: Treatment depends on the type of cancer you have, where it is, and its stage. Common treatments for head and neck cancer include radiation, surgery, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy.

Q: What are clinical trials?

A: Clinical trials are studies of new kinds of cancer treatments. Doctors and nurses conduct clinical trials to learn about how well new treatments work and what their side effects are. If a treatment looks promising, it is then compared to the current treatment to see if it works better or has fewer side effects. People who participate in these studies may benefit from access to new treatments before the FDA approves them for widespread use. Participants also help further understanding of cancer and help future cancer patients.