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Head and Neck Cancer

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Feb 5, 2024.

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Harvard Health Publishing

Head and neck cancer begins with the abnormal growth of cells. These cells multiply out of control, eventually forming a tumor in part of the head or neck. As the tumor grows, it can form a lump, a sore, or an abnormal patch of white or discolored tissue.

Without treatment, the tumor can invade and destroy nearby bones and soft tissues. Eventually, it can spread (metastasize) to lymph nodes in the neck and to other parts of the body.

In many cases, head and neck cancers are triggered by carcinogens. These are substances that cause cancer. Common carcinogens include tobacco smoke, smokeless (chewing) tobacco, and snuff. Chronic or heavy alcohol use also contributes to head and neck cancer. The disease is especially prevalent in those who both use tobacco and drink alcohol.

The human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer in women, has been linked to a growing number of throat cancers.

Head and neck cancers are classified based on where they are found:


Symptoms of head and neck cancer depend on where the cancer is located.


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and whether you smoke, chew tobacco, dip snuff, or drink alcohol. Your doctor may ask about your diet, ethnicity, job, and any history of radiation exposure. Next, he or she will examine you, focusing on your mouth, throat, nose, ears, and the lymph nodes in your neck.

If a lump or suspicious lymph node is found, your doctor will refer you to a specialist for a biopsy. In a biopsy, a small piece of tissue is removed and examined in a laboratory. Depending on your symptoms and the location of the lump or lymph node, the specialist might be an ear, nose, and throat surgeon; an oral maxillofacial surgeon; or a general surgeon.

Once cancer has been diagnosed, more tests will be done to determine how far it has spread.

The main way to evaluate head and neck tumors is with a procedure called fiberoptic endoscopy. The doctor inserts a flexible fiberoptic tube into the throat to look at areas that might be cancerous. This procedure can be used to examine the upper airways, larynx, lungs, and esophagus, as well as the nasal passages and sinuses.

Based upon the part of the head and neck to be evaluated, the tests may vary:

Expected Duration

Once it develops, cancer in the head or neck will continue to grow and spread until it is treated.


To reduce your risk of head and neck cancer


The type of treatment usually depends on how advanced the tumor is. This is called the tumor "stage." For most head and neck cancers, the stage is based on the type of tumor, its size, and whether it has invaded nearby tissues, lymph nodes, or other parts of the body.

Upper aerodigestive tract — These tumors usually are treated with radiation alone, or radiation and surgery combined. Chemotherapy may be added to improve the results of surgery and radiation. (Chemotherapy is the use of anticancer drugs.) In general, the more advanced the cancer, the more treatments will be required.

Larynx — Smaller cancers can be treated with radiation or with surgery that preserves the ability to speak. Adding chemotherapy and radiation may decrease the chances of having to remove the entire larynx. If the entire larynx is removed, other treatments can restore the voice. Your doctor may suggest an external microphone device (electrolarynx), esophageal speech (in which air is expelled from the esophagus to make speech), or a tracheoesophageal puncture (in which a valve is inserted to allow air to leave the trachea and travel to the esophagus to provide esophageal speech).

Salivary glands — Smaller, early stage tumors can be treated with surgery alone. Larger tumors that have spread usually require surgery followed by radiation. Tumors that cannot be removed surgically are treated with radiation or chemotherapy.

Nasopharynx — High-dose radiation is the primary treatment. Chemotherapy and surgery can be used if the cancer does not respond well to radiation. Nasopharyngeal cancers that are associated with infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) may be very responsive to chemotherapy as well.

Sinuses and nasal cavity — Cancer in this area is usually advanced by the time it's discovered. The major concern is that the tumor will invade the skull near the eye and the brain. Surgery removes as much of the tumor as possible; radiation therapy follows, to kill any remaining cancer. Sometimes, radiation treatment is started before surgery to shrink the tumor.

Some surgeons use robotic surgery, such as a procedure called transoral robotic surgery, to operate on head and neck cancers. The robot can perform very delicate, minimally invasive surgery in hard-to-reach areas. The robot can reach places a surgeon's hands cannot easily access. It has shortened the time it takes to do complicated operations in the head and neck area and reduced surgical complications.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

When To Call a Professional

See your doctor as soon as possible if you have any of the following problems, especially if you use or have ever used alcohol or tobacco:


The outlook depends on the stage of the cancer and its location:

Upper aerodigestive tract — In general, the closer to the lips the cancer is, the better the prognosis. This may be because it is easier to detect lip tumors while they are still small. Small, early stage tumors on the lips and mouth can almost always be cured. Even many tumors that have spread to the lymph nodes are potentially curable. The prognosis is poorer for larger tumors and those that have spread to other parts of the body.

Throat and larynx — If the cancer is small and has not spread to the lymph nodes, the vast majority of cases can be cured.

Salivary glands — Early stage salivary gland cancer often can be cured with surgery alone. The outlook is poorest for cancers under the tongue or in the minor salivary glands, cancers that have invaded the facial nerve, and bulky cancers that have spread.

Nasopharynx — Radiation cures people with small nasopharyngeal cancers that have not spread at least 80% of the time. The prognosis is poorer for advanced cancers.

Sinuses and nasal cavity — Because most tumors in these cavities are diagnosed at an advanced stage, the prognosis is often poor. At best, only half of all patients with sinus or nasal cavity cancer are cured.

The prognosis for head and neck tumors continues to improve as advances in radiation therapy and anticancer drugs show promise in their ability to attack cancer cells while sparing other tissues.

Additional Info

National Cancer Institute (NCI)

American Cancer Society (ACS)

American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery

American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology

Learn more about Head and Neck Cancer

Treatment options

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.