Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers include cancers in the mouth and throat, the sinuses (spaces in the bones of the face), salivary glands, nose and middle ear.

What are head and neck cancers?

Head and neck cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck areas. For example, inside the mouth, in the nose and in the throat.

Cancers that begin in the salivary glands or thyroid are much less common.Head and neck cancers are named after the area they start in.

Types of head and neck cancers

Mouth cancers include:

  • The lips
  • The front two-thirds of the tongue
  • The gums
  • The lining inside the cheeks and lips
  • The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue
  • The hard palate (bony top of the mouth)
  • The small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth

The throat is a muscular hollow tube about 5 inches long. It starts behind the nose and leads to the oesophagus – it’s the continuation of the nose and mouth. Throat cancer is unusual. But it’s more common in men in their 60s and 70s. Throat cancer often begins in the flat cells that line the inside of the throat.

Common throat cancer symptoms include:

  • A cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A sore throat
  • Weight loss
  • Ear ache
  • Hoarseness while speaking

The larynx or ‘voice box’, because it contains your vocal cords, is a short passageway in the neck. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis. This moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from getting into airways when we eat.

Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • A sore throat or cough that does not go away
  • Ear ache
  • A lump in the neck or throat
  • A change in the voice or hoarseness

Paranasal cancer affects the sinuses, or spaces in the bones of the face near the nose.

Most people who have this type of cancer have a blockage in the nose. Other symptoms may include:

  • Nose bleeds
  • Loss of smell
  • Mucus coming from the nose
  • Mucus draining into the back of your nose and throat
  • Eye problems, including double vision, loss of sight, watery eyes
  • Loose teeth
  • Lumps or swellings on the face
  • Difficulty opening the mouth

The salivary glands produce saliva. The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth near the jawbone. Salivary gland cancer is unusual. It’s more common in people aged over 50.

  • Swelling on the side of the face – in front of the ear or under the jawbone
  • Numbness in part of your face
  • Muscle weakness on one side of your face
  • Problems with swallowing
  • Not being able to open your mouth wide
  • Pain in the area

Mouth cancers include:

  • The lips
  • The front two-thirds of the tongue
  • The gums
  • The lining inside the cheeks and lips
  • The floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue
  • The hard palate (bony top of the mouth)
  • The small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth

The throat is a muscular hollow tube about 5 inches long. It starts behind the nose and leads to the oesophagus – it’s the continuation of the nose and mouth. Throat cancer is unusual. But it’s more common in men in their 60s and 70s. Throat cancer often begins in the flat cells that line the inside of the throat.

Common throat cancer symptoms include:

  • A cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A sore throat
  • Weight loss
  • Ear ache
  • Hoarseness while speaking

The larynx or ‘voice box’, because it contains your vocal cords, is a short passageway in the neck. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis. This moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from getting into airways when we eat.

Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty or pain when swallowing
  • A sore throat or cough that does not go away
  • Ear ache
  • A lump in the neck or throat
  • A change in the voice or hoarseness

Paranasal cancer affects the sinuses, or spaces in the bones of the face near the nose.

Most people who have this type of cancer have a blockage in the nose. Other symptoms may include:

  • Nose bleeds
  • Loss of smell
  • Mucus coming from the nose
  • Mucus draining into the back of your nose and throat
  • Eye problems, including double vision, loss of sight, watery eyes
  • Loose teeth
  • Lumps or swellings on the face
  • Difficulty opening the mouth

The salivary glands produce saliva. The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth near the jawbone. Salivary gland cancer is unusual. It’s more common in people aged over 50.

  • Swelling on the side of the face – in front of the ear or under the jawbone
  • Numbness in part of your face
  • Muscle weakness on one side of your face
  • Problems with swallowing
  • Not being able to open your mouth wide
  • Pain in the area

Leonie shares her story

Whilst studying for her PhD in education, Leonie found herself unable to complete simple tasks and after investigation, her doctors discovered she had a brain tumour. A renowned indigenous artist and proud Wirajuri woman, Leonie shares how her art helps with her healing process and involves her local community in cancer awareness.

Treatments we cover

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, kills cancer cells. It’s used in the early stages of cancer treatment or after it has started to spread. It can also be used to relieve pain and discomfort from cancer that has spread.

Read More

Chemotherapy is medication that treats your cancer. The drugs kill cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and spreading further.

Read More

Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, kills cancer cells. It’s used in the early stages of cancer treatment or after it has started to spread. It can also be used to relieve pain and discomfort from cancer that has spread.

Read More

Chemotherapy is medication that treats your cancer. The drugs kill cancer cells, preventing them from dividing and spreading further.

Read More

Helpful resources

We understand that you may still have some unanswered questions, and we’re here to help you in any way we can. But if you are still seeking answers visit Targeting Cancer for further information about this condition or contact a staff member from a centre near you.