What Are the Different Types of Head and Neck Cancer?

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Head and neck cancer is a group of different cancers in the mouth, nose, and throat that account for 4 percent of cancers in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). There are many different types of head and neck cancer, and they're named according to the specific area in the head and neck where they begin. Read on to learn about some of the most common types.

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What is squamous cell carcinoma?

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. In fact, squamous cell carcinomas account for more than 90 percent of oral and oropharyngeal cancers, according to the NCI. These cancers start in the squamous cells, which are the flat cells that make up the moist lining of your mouth and throat. Next, let's take a look at the most common squamous cell carcinomas of the head and neck.

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Oral cancer: Unhealthy habits raise your risk

This type of cancer starts in the mouth. For example, it can affect your lips, the lining of your cheeks, your gums, the floor of your mouth, the roof of your mouth (hard palate), or the front of your tongue, according to the American Dental Association. Watch for symptoms including persistent sores, red or white patches, or difficulty chewing, swallowing, or speaking. Smoking and drinking too much can raise your risk, so make sure to practice healthy habits.

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Oropharyngeal cancer: HPV is a rising cause

This type of cancer starts in the back of the mouth or throat (the oropharynx) and is more than twice as common in men than in women, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Smoking is one main risk factor, and oral human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is a rising cause. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is associated with 9,000 cases of head and neck cancers per year. Getting vaccinated against HPV is an effective way to help prevent these cancers.

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Cancer of the paranasal sinuses: An uncommon cancer

If you’ve ever had a sinus infection, you’re familiar with the areas around your nose called the paranasal sinuses (or simply “sinuses”). This is where cancer of the sinuses begins. If you work in an environment where you are exposed to dust or certain chemicals frequently — for example, if you work in carpentry or a saw mill — you may have an increased risk of this rare cancer, according to the NCI. Signs include persistent sinus problems, like pressure and blockage.

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Cancer of the nasal cavity: Watch for nasal symptoms

This type of cancer begins in the nasal cavity — essentially, the inside of your nose. The nasal cavity extends from the inside of your nostrils, along the roof of your mouth, and then connects with the throat. When you breathe, air moves through this area. As with sinus cancer, working in certain environments with dust or chemicals can increase your risk of nasal cavity cancer, according to the NCI. Watch for symptoms like frequent nosebleeds or a persistent sore or lump inside your nose.

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Nasopharyngeal cancer: More common in some ethnic groups

The nasopharynx is the top part of your throat, behind your nose. Tobacco use and heavy alcohol use are the main risk factors for this type of head and neck cancer. It’s an uncommon cancer in the United States, according to ASCO, but Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Alaska natives may have an increased risk. Talk to your doctor if you feel a persistent lump in your neck, which is the most common warning sign.

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Laryngeal cancer: Your voicebox is a crucial structure

Cancer can also occur in your larynx, more commonly known as your voice box. The voice box contains your vocal cords, so it's crucial in helping you speak. It also helps keep food and liquid from entering your lungs when you swallow. According to the NCI, there will be about 13,150 new cases of laryngeal cancer in 2018, more than three-fourths of which will be in men. Like other head and neck cancers, laryngeal cancer is more common in those who smoke or drink heavily. Watch for signs like a persistent sore throat or ear pain.

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Hypopharyngeal cancer: Healthy choices reduce your risk

The hypopharynx is the lower part of your throat, beside and behind your voice box. This type of cancer is uncommon, with only about 2,500 new cases diagnosed yearly in the United States, according to the NCI. If you have ear pain or a sore throat that doesn’t go away, see your doctor. Again, smoking and alcohol use raise your risk of this type of cancer, along with a diet with few nutrients or having a condition called Plummer-Vinson syndrome, the NCI says.

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Salivary gland cancer: Radiation is a risk factor

Your salivary glands produce saliva, and the main ones are located near your jawbone and in the floor of your mouth. There are many different types of salivary gland cancer, but they are relatively rare. You’re at increased risk of developing this type of cancer if you have been exposed to certain types of radiation in your head and neck area. See your doctor if you feel a new lump in the area or if you’re having trouble swallowing.

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What’s the outlook for these cancers?

If you are diagnosed with one of these cancers, your treatment and prognosis will vary depending on the type you have and how far along it is (the stage). However, it’s important to keep in mind that head and neck cancers are relatively uncommon, and the five-year survival rate for the most common types are high when the cancers are detected early. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about these (or other) types of cancers and your personal health.