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What Is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer is the term given to cancers that start in the head and neck region. These are cancers that begin in any of these places:

  • Larynx (voice box)

  • Nasal cavity (the passage behind the nose)

  • Oral cavity (mouth)

  • Paranasal sinuses (spaces around the nose, lined with cells that make mucus)

  • Pharynx (throat)

  • Salivary glands (glands that make saliva)

Illustration of the sinuses
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Look under "Specific Cancers" to learn more about oral cancer, cancer of the larynx, and thyroid cancer.

Types of head and neck cancer

There are many types of head and neck cancer. Here's an overview of the types and which areas they affect:

  • Cancer of the hypopharynx. Cancer cells are found in the tissues in the bottom part of the throat.

  • Cancer of the nasopharynx. Cancer cells are found in the tissues of the upper part of the throat, located behind the nose.

  • Cancer of the oropharynx. Cancer cells are found in the middle part of the throat.

  • Cancer of the paranasal sinus and nasal cavity. Cancer cells are found in the tissues in the small hollow spaces around the nose, known as the paranasal sinus and nasal cavity. The sinuses keep the nose from drying out and are also a space that allows the voice to echo when a person is talking or singing. The nasal cavity is just behind the nose. Air passes through it on its way to the throat during breathing.

  • Cancer of the salivary gland. Cancer cells are found in the salivary glands. These glands are found just below the tongue, on the sides of the face in front of the ears, and under the jawbone. There are also salivary glands in different parts of the upper digestive tract. Salivary glands make saliva, which keeps food moist and helps dissolve food.

  • Metastatic squamous neck cancer with occult primary. In this type of cancer, squamous cell cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck. If the doctor cannot find out where the cancer started, it is called metastatic squamous cell cancer with unknown primary site.

Online Medical Reviewer: Fincannon, Joy, RN, MN
Online Medical Reviewer: MMI board-certified, academically affiliated clinician
Date Last Reviewed: 12/1/2013
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