What are head and neck cancers?
What are head and neck cancers?
Types of head and neck cancers
Head and neck cancers are usually categorised by the area of the head and neck region that the cancer starts. These areas include:1,2
- Mouth (oral cavity) – including the lips, tongue, gums, and other structures inside the oral cavity
- Throat (pharynx)
- Voice box (larynx)
- Nose – including the nasal cavity and sinuses
- Salivary glands
- Skin of the head and neck
There are three main types of head and neck cancer, which are named after the type of cell that the cancer starts in:1,2
- Mucosal squamous cell carcinomas start in the squamous cells, or moist lining, of the mouth, nose, and throat, and account for around 9 in 10 head and neck cancers*
- Adenocarcinomas start in the glandular cells of the head and neck area
- Cutaneous carcinomas start in the skin of the head and neck area
*Cancer Council Australia. Understanding Head and Neck Cancer. September 2021.
Symptoms associated with head and neck cancer
Head and neck cancers can be associated with a number of different symptoms, which are usually specific to the type and location of the cancer. However, some general symptoms may include:1,2
- Hoarse voice
- Sore throat that doesn’t get better
- Constant coughing
- Difficulty swallowing
- Bad breath
- Unexplained weight loss
These symptoms can occur with conditions other than head and neck cancer. You should make an appointment with your GP or specialist for a check-up or to discuss any concerns or questions that you may have.1,2
Risk factors for head and neck cancers
There are different risk factors that are associated with head and neck cancers, which may include:1,2
- Smoking tobacco products
- Drinking alcohol
- Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Being obese or overweight
- Age over 40 years
- Poor oral or dental health
- Chewing tobacco, betel nut, areca nut, gutka or paan
- Weakened immune system
- Sun exposure
- Certain environmental exposures (e.g., chemicals, wood dusts, asbestos fibres)
- Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus
- Being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
- Past radiation therapy to the head and neck area
- Certain inherited conditions (e.g., Fanconi anaemia, Li-Fraumeni syndrome)
Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean that you will get head and neck cancer.2 Talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
Treatment options for head and neck cancers
Radiation therapy - Radiation therapy uses a controlled dose of radiation, usually in the form of x-rays, to destroy or damage the cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be used as the main treatment for head and neck cancer or used together with other treatments to treat the cancer or help relieve symptoms.1
Chemotherapy - Chemotherapy uses medications, usually given by injection or tablet, to help kill cancer cells or slow their growth and spread. Chemotherapy can be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments.1
We understand that you may have more questions about head and neck cancer. You may find the below organisations helpful to contact:
- Targeting Cancer - www.targetingcancer.com.au
- Cancer Council - www.cancer.org.au
- Head & Neck Cancer Australia -www.headandneckcancer.org.au
- eviQ - www.eviq.org.au
In Australia, we have more than 40 oncology centres in metro and regional Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia.
Our experienced, specialised doctors offer bespoke, dedicated care aiming to provide the best possible clinical outcomes.
This website is provided for information purposes only. Nothing on this website is intended to be used as medical advice, or to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. It should not be used as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.
Any medical procedure or treatment involving the use of radiation carries risks, including skin irritation and associated pain. Before proceeding with treatment, you should discuss the risks and benefits of the treatment with an appropriately qualified health practitioner. Individual treatment outcomes and experiences will vary.
- Cancer Council. Understanding head and neck cancers. September 2021. Available: https://www.cancer.org.au/cancer-information/types-of-cancer/head-and-neck-cancers [accessed November 2023].
- Cancer Australia. Head and neck cancer. August 2023. Available: https://www.canceraustralia.gov.au/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/overview [accessed November 2023].