What is the most common head and neck cancer?

More than half a million people worldwide are diagnosed with head and neck cancers annually.
More than half a million people worldwide are diagnosed with head and neck cancers annually.

All cancers start with abnormal uncontrolled growth of cells in part of the body. Cancer in the head and neck region may affect your mouth (oral cavity), tongue, parts of the throat (pharynx), nose or nasal sinuses, salivary glands, gums, tonsils, voice-box (larynx) and middle ear. Globally, approximately 550,000 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer (HNC) every year. 

These HNCs have several different subtypes based on the structures that are affected and their treatment varies based on the location. These include

  • Oral (mouth) and pharynx (throat) cancers: According to the American Cancer Society, about 11.4 per 100,000 people per year develop cancers in the mouth and throat.
    • Hypopharyngeal cancer: Every year, slightly less than one in 100,000 people get cancers that start in the hypopharynx (lower part of the throat beside and just behind the voice box).
    • Oropharyngeal cancer: This is cancer in the back of the mouth or throat.
    • Nasopharyngeal cancer: Every year less than one inr 100,000 people are diagnosed with cancers that start in the nasopharynx (upper part of the throat behind the nose).
  • Nose/nasal cavity cancer: Each year, approximately 2,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with cancers that start in the opening behind the nose, a passage along the roof of the mouth or in the downward passage at the back of the mouth and the throat. 
  • Laryngeal (voice box) cancer: Each year, about 3.6 in 100,000 persons are diagnosed with voice box cancers.
  • Sinus and paranasal sinus cancer: These are cancers of the openings around or near the nose.

Different malignant tumors (abnormal growths or swellings containing cancerous cells) may develop in or around the head and neck area. They are described based on the type of cells that become cancerous such as

  • Squamous cell carcinoma: Carcinoma is the most common type of cancer. It is cancer of the thin, flat squamous cells that form skin or the lining of hollow organs in the head and neck such as the mouth, nose and throat. They are the most common cancers. Approximately nine  out of 10, or 90% of HNCs, are squamous cell carcinomas.
  • Other cell types: A small number of cancers in the head and neck region may develop from other types of cells such as
    • Lymphomas: Cancer of the lymph nodes that drain impurities in the body
    • Adenomas: Tumor/growth in the gland-like cells that may not be cancer
    • Adenocarcinomas: Cancer of the mucous glands
    • Sarcomas: Cancer of the bones and supporting soft connective tissues

What causes head and neck cancers?

  • Excessive alcohol consumption 
  • Tobacco smoking or chewing (oral and throat cancers)
  • Prolonged sun or ultraviolet (UV) light exposure (lip cancer)
  • Some chemicals present in incense sticks
  • Exposure to wood dust, formaldehyde, asbestos, nickel and other chemicals at the workplace (cancers related to the nose and throat)
  • Radiation treatment
  • Viral infections such as
    • Epstein-Barr virus causes glandular fever and may increase the risk of cancers in the nose, behind the nose and in salivary glands.
    • Sexually transmitted infections such as human papilloma virus (HPV)  may increase the risk of HNCs, especially in the tonsils soft palate. About 9,000 people a year are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer of the mouth and throat, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer (HNC), especially those over the age of 50.
  • Poor oral or dental hygiene
  • Marijuana use
  • Weak immune system
  • Poor nutrition 

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancers?

Depending on the location of your head and neck cancer (HNC), you may experience symptoms such as those described below.

Cancer in the mouth may cause

  • A white or red sore that does not heal on the gums, tongue or lining of the mouth.
  • Swelling under the jawbone
  • Unusual bleeding or pain in the mouth
  • A lump
  • A white thickened patch anywhere in the mouth
  • Problems with dentures

Cancer at the back of the mouth may cause 

Cancer in the voice box (larynx) may cause

  • Pain while swallowing
  • Ear pain

Cancer in the sinuses and nasal cavity may cause

How can you reduce the risk of head and neck cancers?

People can lower their risk of head and neck cancer (HNC) by taking certain precautions and adopting lifestyle changes s such as

  • Avoiding tobacco smoking. Quitting smoking may lower the risk of mouth and throat cancer.
  • Using smokeless tobacco products or stopping chewing tobacco.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption.
  • Consulting the doctor about human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccinations and getting vaccinated to prevent new infections in the mouth and throat. It is recommended for people in certain age groups.
  • Using condoms and dental dams consistently and correctly during sexual activity may help lower the risk of HPV infection.
  • Using lip balm containing sunscreen and wearing a wide-brimmed hat may help protect against harmful ultraviolet (UV) sun rays.
  • Visiting the dentist regularly for checkups may help spot HNCs early when they are easier to treat.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/19/2020
References
Medscape Medical Reference

CDC


American Speech Language Hearing Association


University of Pennsylvania


The New England Journal of Medicine


American Society of Clinical Oncology


Cancer treatment Centre of America


American Cancer Society