Head and Neck Cancer
Moffitt Cancer Center is a National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center that proudly treats cancer in the head and neck through its advanced Head and Neck Cancer Program.
What is head and neck cancer?
Most forms of head and neck cancer begin in the squamous cells lining the mouth, salivary glands, nose, throat and other moist surfaces in this region of the body. Cancers affecting the brain, eye, esophagus, scalp, skin, muscles, bones, thyroid and endocrine system are not usually included in this group. Additionally, cancerous squamous cells sometimes develop in the lymph nodes when there is no evidence of cancer elsewhere in the head or neck; this type of cancer is known as metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult (unknown) primary. When cancer of the head or cancer of the neck spreads (metastasizes), it generally does so locally and/or to the lymph nodes located within the neck.
How is head and neck cancer categorized?
Head and neck cancer is broadly categorized based on the area of the head or neck in which it begins. These categories include:
- Oral cavity – This region includes the lips, gums, cheek lining, front two-thirds of the tongue, bottom of the mouth and hard palate (roof of the mouth).
- Throat (pharynx) – This three-part hollow tube originates behind the nose (nasopharynx), extends downward through the soft palate (oropharynx) and ends at the top of the esophagus (hypopharynx).
- Voice box (larynx) – A short passageway that is formed by cartilage below the pharynx, the larynx contains the vocal cords and epiglottis, a small piece of tissue that covers the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.
- Salivary glands – These saliva-producing glands are located on the floor of the mouth, under the ears and near the jawbone.
- Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity – This region consists of small hollow spaces in the bones surrounding the nose and the hollow space inside the nose.
Common causes of head and neck cancer
Some of the risk factors that can increase a person’s chances of developing head cancer or neck cancer include:
- Alcohol and tobacco use – This is the most significant risk factor for the development of head and neck cancer—particularly malignancies affecting the oral cavity, esophagus (hypopharynx) and voice box (larynx)—and the risk is even higher when both alcohol and tobacco are consumed. Notably, tobacco use doesn’t just apply to smokers—using smokeless tobacco (for example, chewing tobacco) and being exposed to secondhand smoke can both increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer.
- HPV infection – Being infected with a cancer-causing form of human papillomavirus (HPV)—particularly HPV type 16—can increase the chances of developing soft palate (oropharyngeal) cancer affecting the base of the tongue or the tonsils.
- Epstein-Barr virus infection – Experiencing an Epstein-Barr virus infection can raise the risk of developing nose (nasopharyngeal) cancer and salivary gland cancer.
- Radiation exposure – It’s fairly common for cancer patients (as well as patients being treated for noncancerous conditions) to undergo radiation therapy as part of their treatment. Unfortunately, doing so can increase the risk of developing salivary gland cancer.
- Workplace exposure – Being exposed to certain substances common in the workplace can increase the risk of developing head and neck cancer. For example, asbestos and synthetic fibers are associated with voice box (larynx) cancer, and formaldehyde, nickel dust and wood dust are all associated with paranasal sinus cancer and nasal cavity cancer.
- Paan use – In Southeast Asia, it’s relatively common for people to chew paan (betel nut) for the stimulant effects it produces. Doing so can increase the risk of developing mouth (oral cavity) cancers.
Of course, some of these head and neck cancer risk factors cannot be avoided (for example, undergoing radiation therapy at a physician’s direction as a necessary part of treatment). However, staying away from the other risk factors whenever possible may lessen a person’s chances of developing cancer in the neck and head.
How common are head and neck cancers?
Head and neck cancer is a relatively uncommon malignancy, accounting for just 4% of all cancer cases within the United States. Of the diagnosed cases, mouth (oral cavity) cancer, throat (pharynx) cancer and voice box (larynx) cancer are the most common. Paranasal sinus cancer, nasal cavity cancer and salivary gland cancer are considerably less common.
How are head and neck cancers treated?
Head and neck cancer treatment will vary from one patient to another based on numerous factors, such as the specific type of cancer cells present, where the tumor is located, how far the malignancy has progressed and the patient’s age and overall health. With that being said, treatment for cancer on the head and cancer on the neck often involves a combination of:
A medical provider specializing in clinical oncology will be able to recommend the course of treatment that’s best suited to a patient’s unique condition.
Moffitt Cancer Center’s Head and Neck Cancer Program features a multispecialty team of physicians, surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists and other professionals who have world-class expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of malignant and benign tumors of the head and neck. Our comprehensive approach is evidence-based, and we offer advanced treatment options, including a robust clinical trials program through which our patients have access to promising new treatments before they are made widely available in other settings. We are also a high-volume surgery center, and our head and neck surgeons are regarded among the best in the nation.
As the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center based in Florida, Moffitt is well-known and respected throughout the nation. With extensive clinical and research expertise, Moffitt has firmly established itself as a leader in transforming cancer treatment for all patients.
If you'd like to learn more about treatment options for all forms of head and neck cancer, the experts at Moffitt can help. Call 1-888-663-3488 or complete a new patient registration form online. Another quality that sets Moffitt apart from other cancer treatment providers is our remarkably fast response time.
Note: Moffitt's Head and Neck Program does not treat the following conditions: Sinus congestions, rhinitis, sinusitis, nasal or sinus allergies, nasal polyps (unless cancerous), sinus polyps (unless cancerous), tonsillitis (acute or chronic), sore throats, post-nasal drainage, "glue ear”/ear congestion, vertigo/labarynthitis, Meniere’s disease, tinnitus, deafness/hearing loss, Acoustic neuroma, or Subglottic stenosis. Please contact the USF Department of Otolaryngology to make an appointment at 813-974-2201.
Support the Future of Head and Neck Oncology Research and Treatment
When you support Moffitt Cancer Center, you help make breakthrough head and neck research and innovative treatments possible. Give now to support the Head and Neck Oncology Program. For more information, call toll-free 1-800-456-3434, ext. 1403.