Oral, head, and neck cancer is a broad term that describes many different cancers that start in the head and neck. Learn about the different types and some common risk factors.
Most oral, head, and neck cancers begin in the cells that make up the moist tissues (mucosal surfaces) of the head and neck, including in the mouth, nose, and throat. Like other cancers, oral, head, and neck cancers occur when abnormal cells begin to grow and divide uncontrollably and form a mass, called a malignant tumor.
The National Cancer Institute estimates that 85 percent of oral, head, and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. Men (age 50 or older) who use both tobacco and alcohol are at the highest risk.
Cancers of the brain, eye, thyroid, as well as the skin, bones, muscles and nerves of the head and neck are not included under the heading of "oral, head and neck" cancer.
Doctors identify oral, head, and neck cancers by the area in which the cancer begins:
Lip and oral cavity cancer occurs on the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining of the cheeks and lips, the floor of the mouth under the tongue, the palate, and the area behind the wisdom teeth.
Risk factors: Exposure of the lips to sun and, possibly, infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Salivary gland cancer occurs in the glands that produce saliva, located in front of and just below each ear (parotid glands), under the tongue in the floor of the mouth (sublingual glands), and below the jawbone (submandibular glands).
Risk factors: Radiation to the head and neck, either from diagnostic X-rays or from treatment for cancer or other conditions.
Paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancer occurs in the small, air-filled pockets in the bones around the nose and in the nasal cavity, the passageway from the nose to the throat.
Risk factors: Exposure to some industrial materials, including dust from wood or nickel. Use of tobacco and alcohol may play a lesser role than in other oral, head, and neck cancers.
Nasopharyngeal, oropharyngeal, and hypopharyngeal cancers occur in the pharynx, an approximately five-inch-long hollow tube that leads from the nose to the esophagus and the trachea. The pharynx has three parts:
- The nasopharynx is the upper part just behind the nose.
- The oropharynx is the middle part that includes the base of the tongue, the soft palate, the sides and back of the throat, and the tonsils.
- The hypopharynx is the lower part of the pharynx.
Nasopharyngeal cancer: Asian ancestry, particularly Chinese. Infection with Epstein-Barr virus, exposure to wood dust, and consumption of some preservatives or salted foods.
Oropharyngeal cancer: Potential but not proven risk factors include poor oral hygiene, HPV infection, and use of mouthwashes with high alcohol content.
Hypopharyngeal cancer: Having a rare disorder called Plummer-Vinson Syndrome, which is also called Paterson-Kelly Syndrome.
Laryngeal cancer occurs in the larynx, also called the voice box. The larynx includes the vocal cords and the epiglottis, a piece of tissue that moves to cover the trachea (windpipe) during swallowing.
Risk factors: Exposure to airborne asbestos particles, especially in the workplace.