Types of Head & Neck Cancers

CURE, Fall 2005, Volume 4, Issue 3

An explanation of different types of head and neck cancers.

Oral cancer includes the mouth, tongue, gums, lips and lining of the cheeks. Over half of all head and neck cancers occur in the mouth. Ninety percent of oral cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. Common symptoms include leukoplakia, erythroplakia (bright red patches in the mouth), loose teeth, difficulty or pain when swallowing or a sore on your lip or in your mouth that won’t heal.

The pharynx is separated into three separate parts. The nasopharynx includes the space just behind the nose and above the roof of the mouth. Symptoms of nasopharyngeal cancer may include nosebleeds, pain or ringing in the ear, headaches or trouble hearing. The oropharynx is the area at the base of the tongue in the back of the mouth and includes the tonsils. Cancer of the oropharynx most commonly starts in the cells that line the oropharynx, and symptoms may include a sore throat that doesn’t go away, trouble swallowing, a lump in the back of the mouth or throat, a change in the voice or pain in the ear. The hypopharynx is the bottom part of the throat that is connected to the esophagus, where food passes to the stomach. Symptoms that may be caused by hypopharyngeal cancer include trouble or pain with swallowing, a sore throat that doesn’t go away or ear pain.

The larynx is the short passageway just below the pharynx, which includes the vocal cords. It connects to the trachea, where air travels to the lungs. A third of all head and neck cancers affect the larynx. Patients who have laryngectomies usually undergo speech therapy or use an artificial speech aid to speak. Symptoms may include a lump in the neck, problems breathing, hoarseness or other voice changes or a cough that doesn’t go away.

Salivary gland cancer affects the sublingual gland (under the tongue), the parotid glands (sides of the mouth, near the cheekbones) and submandibular glands (under the jawbone). Because the salivary glands help digest food and are close to the jaw, treatment can cause severe mucositis or chronic dry mouth. Salivary gland cancer accounts for 5 percent of all head and neck cancers.

Tumors of the nasal cavity are rare and can originate in the airway just behind the nose. The paranasal sinuses are the small hollow spaces around the nose. Cancer of the nasal cavity usually appears in the maxillary sinus, the area located in the cheekbones. Symptoms may include blocked sinuses that don’t clear, a lump or sore inside the nose that doesn’t heal or nosebleeds.

Cancers of the brain, eye and thyroid are not considered head and neck cancers.