About 55,000 people in the United States receive a diagnosis of head and neck cancer each year. That’s about 4% of all U.S. cancer cases. Nearly 11,000 people die of head and neck cancer annually.
Defining Head and Neck Cancers
Head and neck cancers are cancers that start in the organs and tissues inside the head and neck. They include cancers of the:
- Inner lips
- Larynx (voice box)
- Oropharynx (throat)
- Salivary glands
Doctors consider cancers that grow on the outside of the head and neck — including the lips — to be skin cancers.
The three main types of head and neck cancers are:
- HPV-associated cancers
- Non-HPV-associated cancers
- Thyroid cancers
HPV-Related Head and Neck Cancers
The most common forms of head and neck cancer today are those related to the human papilloma virus (HPV). Just as HPV is the main cause of cervical cancers, it also causes cancers that grow in the back of the throat.
These HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are on the rise and currently account for 18,000 cases annually in the U.S. About 3,600 people die of this disease each year.
Patients tend to be younger than those with non-HPV-associated cancers. Although HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are increasing, they are less lethal than non-HPV-related head and neck cancers.
“They can feel the symptoms of pain or discomfort with swallowing, but most commonly, they present with feeling a mass in the neck itself from an enlarged lymph node,” says Dan Zandberg, MD, medical oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “Treatment options for HPV oropharyngeal cancer are similar to patients that don’t have HPV-driven cancer. However, in clinical trials, we’re tailoring our therapies to try to continue to have good prognosis for those patients but at the same time make our therapies less toxic.”
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Non-HPV-Related Head and Neck Cancers
Men are twice as likely as women to develop head and neck cancers. Most patients are in their 50s and 60s at the time of diagnosis. Non-HPV-related head and neck cancers — which are becoming less common — are generally harder to treat than HPV-related cancers.
Unlike other forms of head and neck cancer, thyroid cancer is much more common among women than men. In fact, three times as many women as men develop thyroid cancer. Patients are most often between the ages of 40 and 60 at the time of diagnosis.
When to See Your Doctor or Dentist
It’s important to know the symptoms of head and neck cancer. They include:
- Trouble hearing, breathing, or speaking
- A lump anywhere on your head or neck, or inside your mouth
- Chewing or swallowing problems
- Feeling like something is stuck in your throat
- Sore throat that lasts longer than 7 to 10 days
- Pain or ringing in the ears
See your primary doctor or dentist promptly if you have any of these symptoms. They will examine you and refer you for further care and testing if needed.
Treatments for Head and Neck Cancer
Treatments for head and neck cancers have improved significantly in recent years. These successes are mainly due to better treatments for HPV-related cancers, Dr. Fenton says.
If you receive systemic therapy, that means the drugs will work on most cells in your body. Both healthy and cancerous cells will feel the drug’s effects. Types of systemic therapies include:
- Chemotherapy: Anti-cancer drugs that attack cancer cells directly
- Immunotherapy: Drugs that boost the immune system to get the body to kill cancer cells
- Targeted therapies: Drugs that identify and attack only specific types of cancer cells
In radiation therapy, a radiation oncologist uses high-energy x-rays to destroy cancer cells. Treatments may include small doses spread over several weeks or larger doses given over a short period of time. This latter group includes advanced treatments like stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT).
Depending on where the tumor is located, treatment may include an operation by a surgical oncologist. These surgeries focus on removing cancerous tumors and slivers of nearby healthy tissue. Surgeries for head and neck cancers include advanced treatments like transoral robotic surgery (TORS).
In general, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan based on your tumor type, size, location, and stage of cancer. “Most head and neck cancer patients will need a combined treatment plan that includes multiple therapies,” says Dr. Fenton.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancers. Link
American Cancer Society. Thyroid Cancer Risk Factors. Link
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thyroid Cancer. Link
Dr. Apar Kishor Ganti. HPV and the Immune System in Head and Neck Cancers: Therapeutic Considerations. Oncology. Link
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