What Are the Signs of Cancer in the Neck?

Medically Reviewed on 12/29/2022
Signs of Cancer in the Neck
Head and neck cancers account for four percent of all cancers in the United States.

Some of the common signs of cancer in the neck include:

These symptoms could be signs of other less serious medical conditions. Consult your dentist or doctor to identify the exact cause of these symptoms.

The signs could be specific depending on the location of the cancerous tumor.

Symptoms of head and neck cancer in specific areas of the neck include:

  • Oral cavity
    • Red or white patches in your mouth, including the gums and tongue
    • Bleeding or pain in the mouth
    • Swelling in the jaw, including swelling that makes false teeth fit badly
    • A mass or swelling within your mouth
    • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Pharynx
    • Trouble breathing or talking
    • Unhealing neck or throat pain
    • Painful swallowing
    • Earaches or ringing in your ears that keeps returning
    • Trouble hearing
  • Larynx
    • Painful swallowing
    • Ear pain
    • Weight loss
    • Change in voice, such as hoarseness or difficulty speaking clearly
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses
    • Chronic sinus infections that do not heal with antibiotics
    • Blocked sinuses (which are difficult to clear) or sinus pressure
    • Nosebleeds
    • Headaches
    • Swelling around the eyes
    • Pain in the upper teeth
    • Pain or pressure in the ear
    • Problems with false teeth not fitting anymore
  • Salivary glands
    • Swelling under the chin and jawbone
    • Numb or paralyzed facial muscles
    • Pain in the face, chin, or neck that does not go away

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers refer to malignant tumors that originate in or around the following:

  • Throat
  • Larynx
  • Nose
  • Sinuses
  • Mouth

Five main types of head and neck cancers are there based on the location of the tumor:

  1. Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer: Originate in the larynx or hypopharynx (the lower part of the larynx).
  2. Pharyngeal cancer: Develops in the throat that goes from behind the nose to the top of the esophagus.
  3. Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer: Originate in the nasal cavity or the air-filled areas surrounding the nasal cavity.
  4. Oral and oropharyngeal cancer: Originate in the oral cavity, including the mouth, tongue, and oropharynx area (the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the larynx).
  5. Salivary gland cancer: Develops in the salivary gland that secretes saliva.

What are the risk factors for head and neck cancers?

Awareness of risk factors for neck cancer may help prevent it.

Some of the risk factors include:


Skin Cancer Symptoms, Types, Images See Slideshow

What are the stages of head and neck cancer?

Cancer staging helps decide the extent to which cancer has grown and spread.

Table 1. The stages of head and neck cancer
Stages The extent of cancer spread
0 Carcinoma in situ. Abnormal cells are in the lining of the affected area and have the potential to become cancer.
I The tumor is not larger than 2 cm and has not reached the lymph node.
II The tumor is larger than 2 cm but not larger than 4 cm and has not reached the lymph nodes.
III The tumor is either larger than 4 cm or has spread to a lymph node located on the same side of the neck as the tumor. The lymph node is smaller than 3 cm.

The tumor could be of any size and has spread to:

  • Nearby tissue or other areas of the head and neck
  • One large lymph node (more than 3 cm) and on the same side of the neck as the tumor, multiple lymph nodes of any size on the same side of the neck as the tumor, or one lymph node of any size on the opposite side of the tumor 
  • Distant parts of the body beyond the head and neck, such as the lungs

How is head and neck cancer treated?

The treatment options for head and neck cancer include:

  • Surgery: Surgical removal of a benign or malignant tumor is the primary treatment option. Apart from removing the tumor, your physician may remove the adjacent lymph node if the cancer has spread to this region.
  • Radiation therapy: Utilizes high-energy rays to destroy cancerous cells. Depending on the type of radiation used, there are two types of radiation therapy.
    • External beam radiation: The radiation comes from a machine kept outside the body.
    • Internal radiation: The doctor puts radioactive material inside the body.
  • Chemotherapy: Aims to kill or destroy cancer cells or prevent their differentiation. Chemotherapy is administered orally or intravenously.
  • Targeted cancer therapy: Aims to prevent the mutations that cause the cells to grow uncontrollably or directly attack the specific cancer cells. They are less harmful than chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
  • Immunotherapy: Drugs boost the immune system to fight cancer cells. The doctors may choose a single therapy or combine two or more therapy for the best results.

What is the survival rate of head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer account for four percent of all cancers in the United States. An estimation of 66,470 head and neck cancer cases and 15,050 deaths from the disease were predicted for 2022 in the United States.

The overall five-year survival rates (including stages) for some types of head and neck cancer are:

  • Lip cancer: 91.4 percent
  • Laryngeal cancer: 61 percent
  • Oral cavity and pharynx cancer: 68 percent
  • Tongue cancer: 68.8 percent
Medically Reviewed on 12/29/2022
Image Source: iStock image

Head and Neck Cancers. https://www.cancer.gov/types/head-and-neck/head-neck-fact-sheet

Head and Neck Cancer: What to Know. https://www.webmd.com/cancer/head-neck-cancer

Head and Neck Cancer Staging. https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/types/head-neck/diagnosis/staging