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Head and neck cancer

Overview of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers are relatively uncommon, making up about 3 percent of cases in the United States. They affect different parts of the mouth, ears, nose, and throat. Most of these cancers start in the cells of the mucous membranes, the moist lining of the nose, mouth, and throat.

If you have head and neck cancer, our experienced team of oncologists at Dignity Health will ensure you receive high quality, compassionate care. Find a Doctor and set up an appointment today.


Catching cancer early is usually the key to successful treatment. The earlier doctors can identify cancer cells, the easier it will be to remove tumors and prevent spread.

Fortunately, head and neck cancers tend to cause symptoms early on, making them one of the easiest types of cancer to diagnose.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer vary depending on where the cancer cells are growing, but here are some common ones:

  • Blocked sinuses
  • Changes in your voice or persistent, unexplained hoarseness
  • Difficulty or pain with swallowing or speaking; feeling a “lump” in your throat
  • Frequent headaches or pain in the upper teeth
  • Persistent sinus infections that do not respond to treatment
  • Lumps or sores that do not heal
  • Unexplained weight gain or loss
  • Nosebleeds or unusual bleeding in the mouth
  • Numbness or difficulty using face muscles
  • Ringing in the ears, trouble hearing, or ear pain
  • Persistent sore throat
  • Swelling of the jaw, eyes, or under the chin
  • White or red patches on the gums

Many of these symptoms are also common in other conditions. Therefore, if you do experience any of the above, you should speak with your Dignity Health doctor to see whether treatment or testing is warranted.


Wherever it occurs in the body, cancer is caused by the growth of abnormal cells, which can form tumors or spread to other parts of the body. Head and neck cancers are caused by abnormal cell growth located in the head and/or neck.

The exact causes of cancer are unknown. Still, experts have identified factors that can increase the likelihood. Some of these factors are genes, lifestyle choices, and exposures to carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).


Head and neck cancer is a type that includes many kinds of cancers located in the throat, mouth, skull bones, ears, or nasal passages.

The most common types of head and neck cancer include:

  • Ear and temporal bone cancer
  • Larynx (voice box) cancer
  • Oral cavity (mouth) cancer
  • Salivary gland cancer
  • Sinus cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Thyroid and parathyroid cancer

Risk factors

Risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Tobacco use in any form (likely involved in 85 percent of head and neck cancers and after diagnosis, prior or current tobacco use can also affect treatment outcomes )
  • Marijuana use
  • African American race
  • Age older than 40
  • Frequent and heavy alcohol use
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Eating disorders such as bulimia
  • Male gender
  • Previous infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) or Epstein-Barr virus (EBV)
  • Poor nutrition, including vitamin A or vitamin B deficiency
  • Poor oral hygiene or lack of dental care
  • Prolonged sun exposure
  • Previous history of cancer
  • Having a weakened or compromised immune system
  • Exposure to environmental carcinogens like excessive radiation, paint fumes, or asbestos

Your doctor at Dignity Health will evaluate your symptoms and determine whether or not they are  signs of cancer. The right diagnosis is essential because some other conditions share these same symptoms.


Not smoking, or stopping smoking, is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of head and neck cancer. Your doctor can help you with other prevention strategies.

Some examples are:

  • Using sunscreen and avoiding sunburns by limiting excess sun exposure
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol use
  • Avoiding recreation drugs such as marijuana
  • Not smoking or quitting smoking as soon as possible
  • Reducing your risk of HPV through safer sex and/or getting the HPV vaccine
  • Attending regular checkups and talking with your doctor about any concerns
  • Getting regular dental cleanings and ensuring that dentures or other implants in your mouth fit correctly

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.