Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is a relatively uncommon type of cancer. Around 12,000 new cases are diagnosed in the UK each year.

There are more than 30 areas within the head and neck where cancer can develop, including the:

  • mouth and lips
  • voice box (larynx)
  • throat (pharynx)
  • salivary glands
  • nose and sinuses
  • area at the back of the nose and mouth (nasopharynx)

For more information about the specific types of head & neck cancer, please follow this link.

Am I at risk?

Doctors do not know the exact causes of head and neck cancers. But there are risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it. Having one or more risk factors does not mean you will get a head and neck cancer. Also, having no risk factors does not mean you will not develop a head and neck cancer.

The main risk factors for head and neck cancers are tobacco and alcohol. It is thought that about 3 out of 4 head and neck cancers (75%) are linked to tobacco or alcohol use.

Many cancers at the back of the tongue and in the tonsils (cancers of the oropharynx) are linked to infection with a type of virus called human papilloma virus (HPV).

Other risk factors include:

  • Gender – the risk increases as you get older and is most common in people over 50 years of age, although you people can be affected too.
  • Low immunity – the absence of a healthy diet, immune suppressing medication and HIV can lead to an increased risk of head and neck cancer.
  • Sunlight – Exposure to sunlight over a prolonged period of time increases the risk of developing cancer on the outside of the lip.
  • Occupational exposure – prolonged exposure to some types of dust and certain chemicals can increase risk. These are hardwood dust, leather dust and formaldehye.

For more information on the risk factors for head and neck cancer, please follow this link.

Symptoms of head and neck cancer

The symptoms of a head and neck cancer depend on where in the head and neck the cancer started and if it has spread anywhere nearby, such as the lymph nodes in the neck.

Common symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • an ulcer in the mouth that doesn’t heal within a few weeks
  • red or white patches in the mouth that don’t go away within a few weeks
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • changes to your voice (for example, hoarseness)
  • a constant sore throat and earache on one side
  • a swelling or lump in the face, mouth or neck,
  • a blocked nose that does not clear
  • breathing more loudly than normal
  • changes in your speech

Although these symptoms can be caused by conditions other than cancer, it’s important to have them checked out by your GP or dentist, particularly if they continue.

For specific information on the different types of head and neck cancers, please follow this link

Lumps in the neck
If a cancer in the mouth or throat spreads from where it started, the first place it will usually spread to is the lymph nodes in the neck. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures that are part of the lymphatic system. The cancer may begin to grow in the lymph nodes. This can show up as a painless lump in the neck.

Enlarged lymph nodes are much more likely to be due to an infection than to cancer. But if you have a lump on your neck that hasn’t gone away within 3-4 weeks, get it checked by a specialist doctor.

Patient information

For more information from Macmillan regarding head and neck cancer, please follow this link.

For more information from Cancer Research UK regarding head and neck cancer, please follow this link.