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Head and Neck Cancer: Introduction

What is cancer?

Cancer is when cells in the body change and grow out of control. To help you understand what happens when you have cancer, let's look at how your body works normally. Your body is made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Normal cells grow when your body needs them, and die when your body does not need them any longer.

Cancer is made up of abnormal cells that grow even though your body doesn't need them. In most cancers, the abnormal cells grow to form a lump or mass called a tumor. If cancer cells are in the body long enough, they can grow into (invade) nearby areas. They can even spread to other parts of the body (metastasis).

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer is the term given to cancers that start in the head and neck region. There are many different types of tissues in this area. These cancers can begin in any of these places:

  • Voice box or larynx

  • Nasal cavity, the passage behind the nose that air passes through it on its way to the throat during breathing

  • Mouth or oral cavity

  • Paranasal sinuses, spaces around the nose, lined with cells that make mucus that keeps the nose from drying out. They are also a space that allows your voice to echo when you talk or sing.

  • Throat or pharynx

  • Salivary glands, the glands that make saliva, which keeps food moist and helps dissolve food

Illustration of the sinuses

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, behind the voice box.

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

  • Cancer of the oropharynx. Cancer cells are found in the back of 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 nasal cavity is just behind the nose.

  • 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.

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

Talk with your healthcare provider

If you have questions about head and neck cancer, talk with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you understand more about this cancer and the exact type you have.