Head and Neck Cancer: What Types of Cancer Fall Into This Category?

Head and neck cancer is a general term to describe a number of tumors that originate in the mouth and throat. Other cancers in the head and neck area include thyroid, skin, salivary glands and sinuses. But what are the specific cancer sites that fall into that category?

Oral Cavity: Cancers found in the oral cavity are generally called mouth cancers.  The cancer can develop in the lips, cheeks, teeth, gums, the front of the tongue, the floor and roof of the mouth, and the area found behind the wisdom teeth.

Throat: Also known as the pharynx and larynx, the pharynx has three parts in which cancer can begin. The upper area behind the nose is called the nasopharynx. The middle area, including the behind the mouth, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils, is called the oropharynx. The hypopharynx makes up the lower area. The voice box, also known as the larynx, Is part of the throat and comprises cartilage, vocal cords, and the epiglottis, a small piece of tissue that prevents food from entering airways.

Sinus: Cancer may grow in the hollow space inside the nose, also known as the nasal cavity, and hollow spaces in the bones surrounding the nose, also known as the paranasal sinuses.

Salivary Glands: There are two types of salivary glands in the body, known as major salivary glands and minor salivary glands. Major salivary glands are found in the bottom of the mouth and around the jawbone. Minor salivary glands are found throughout the mucous in the mouth and throat.

Mouth and throat cancers are caused by smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol and the human papillomavirus (HPV).

How the Human Papillomavirus May Cause Some Head and Neck Cancers

The human papillomavirus (HPV) is linked to several cancers, including tonsil cancer, base of tongue cancer, and some gynecologic cancers.  

Almost everyone will be exposed to HPV at least once in their life because the virus is spread through direct contact. The body’s immune system can usually fight off the virus, but if the virus lasts longer than, it can lead to cancer. Throat cancer, which also includes cancers of the tonsil and the base of the tongue, is a common HPV-related cancer diagnosis in the U.S.

Is HPV infection Preventable?

For some, HPV infection may not present signs or symptoms. However, you can make a couple of decisions to prevent infection. The American Cancer Society recommends using protection and limiting your number of sex partners.

Another way to prevent HPV infections is to get the HPV vaccine which protects against subtypes that cause many HPV-related cancers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccine through age 45, though it is only recommended for children and adults ages 9 through 26. By 26 years old, most people may have already been exposed to HPV, so vaccination may not have many benefits past that age. Patients 27 to 45 should speak with their doctor to see if they should be vaccinated.

Learn more about HPV here.

General Screening for Head and Neck Cancers

It is always a good idea to receive routine cancer screenings. You should see your doctor if you have symptoms of head neck cancer: hoarseness, difficulty swallowing, pain with swallowing, neck mass, ear pain, visible sore in your mouth or throat.

Treatments for Head and Neck Cancers

Treatment of head and neck cancers depends on each patient’s individual case. Many factors, including the cancer site, can determine exactly what course of treatment is right for the patient. Generally, treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of those listed.

At Karmanos Cancer Institute, our Head and Neck Oncology Multidisciplinary Team is comprised of experts who specialize specifically in detecting, evaluating, and treating head and neck cancers. Patients throughout the Karmanos Cancer Network and the McLaren Health Care system have access to the specialized treatments our head and neck oncology specialists provide through their local Karmanos location.