Information and symptoms of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is a general term used for a range of cancers that start in the head and neck of the body. This region includes the mouth, tongue, palate, jaw, salivary glands, tonsils, throat (pharynx), voice box (larynx), nose and sinuses.

Head and neck cancers occur when malignant tumours grow in any of the tissue or lymph nodes in the head or neck area. Not all tumours in the head and neck are malignant.

On this page you will find information on:

Types of head and neck cancer

Cancers of the head and neck are categorised by the area of the head or neck where they begin.

Mouth (oral cavity)

The mouth, also called the oral cavity, includes the lips, gums and tongue.The muscles at the base of the tongue continue into the upper throat (oropharynx). Cancer that starts in the mouth is called oral cancer. Cancer can begin in any part of the mouth – the lips, gums, inside lining of the cheek and lips, front two-thirds of the tongue, floor of the mouth under the tongue, bony roof of the mouth (hard palate), and the small area of gum behind the wisdom teeth.

Salivary gland

The salivary gland makes saliva. There are three major salivary glands; parotid (in front of the ears), sublingual gland (under the tongue) and submandibular gland (under the jawbone). Most salivary gland cancers affect the parotid glands.

Throat (pharynx)

The throat, also called the pharynx, is a hollow tube that starts behind the nose and leads to the food pipe (oesophagus) and the windpipe (trachea). Cancer can affect the three parts of the pharynx; nasopharynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx.

Voice box (larynx)

The voice box, also called the larynx, is a short passageway that connects the lower part of the throat (hypopharynx) with the windpipe (trachea). Cancer that starts in the larynx is called laryngeal cancer.

Nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses

The nasal cavity is the large, hollow space inside the nose. The bones around the nasal cavity have a group of small, air-filled spaces called the paranasal sinuses.

How common is head and neck cancer?

About 800 people in Queensland are diagnosed with head and neck cancer each year. One in 36 men and 1 in 114 women will be diagnosed with a head and neck cancer by the age of 85.

What are the risks factors?

Major Risk Factors

Head and neck cancer are associated with a number of major risk factors. Two of the main risk factors are alcohol and tobacco, and the combined effect of drinking and smoking is significantly greater than the risk of just drinking or just smoking. The main risk factors include:

  • Smoking tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars and pipes) – compared to nonsmokers, smokers have about 7 times the risk. 
  • Drinking alcohol – compared to non-drinkers, drinkers have about 6 times the risk.

Other risk factors:

  • Older age – head and neck cancers are more common in people aged 40 years and older.
  • Being male – men are about three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer.
  • Viruses – the human papillomavirus (HPV) has been linked to cancers of the oropharynx, and may play a role in other head and neck cancers. Exposure to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) may also be linked to the development of some head and neck cancers.
  • Family history – people with a parent, brother, sister or child with head and neck cancer have double the risk of developing some types of head and neck cancer.
  • Being from southern China or South-East Asia – people from some cultural backgrounds may be more likely to develop some types of head an neck cancers, because of chewing tobacco or eating salty fish.
  • Chemical exposure at work – breathing is asbestos fibres, wood dust, dry-cleaning solvents or certain types of paint or chemicals is associated with an increased risk of some types of head and neck cancer.
  • Sun exposure – ultraviolet radiation may cause skin cancer on the lip.
  • Low immunity – people with low immunity conditions, such as those who have had a kidney transplant, have higher risk of developing oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Areca nut, betel nut, paan or gutka – chewing or smoking these products may cause oral cancer.

Having one or more of these risk factors does not mean you will get a head and neck cancer. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about any of these risk factors.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

There are many possible symptoms of head and neck cancer. However, these symptoms can also occur with other illnesses, so they don’t necessarily mean you have cancer – only tests can confirm the diagnosis. If you are concerned about these symptoms, make an appointment with your general practitioner (GP) without delay.

Some general symptoms include:

  • A persistent sore throat or cough
  • Coughing up bloody phlegm
  • Voice changes or hoarseness
  • Difficulty swallowing or painful swallowing
  • Swelling or a lump in the neck or throat
  • Frequent headaches or sinus pressure
  • Pressure or pain in your ears

See Understanding Head and Neck Cancer booklet for specific symptoms depending on the location of the head and neck cancer.

There are many possible symptoms of head and neck cancer. However, displaying these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have cancer. Only a qualified medical practitioner can make this diagnosis.

How is head and neck cancer diagnosed?

To diagnose a head and neck cancer, your GP or dentist may do some general tests and then refer you to a specialist for additional tests. Depending on your symptoms, tests will include examinations, tissue sampling (biopsy) and imaging tests. You may also have blood tests.

  • Physical examination – the doctor will examine your mouth, throat, nose, neck, ears and eyes depending on your symptoms. A spatula may be used to see inside the mouth more clearly.
  • Nasendoscopy – examination of the nose and throat using a thin flexible tube which has a light and camera on the end.
  • Laryngoscopy – a procedure that allows a doctor to examine your larynx and pharynx, and take a tissue sample.
  • Biopsy – the doctors removes a sample of cells or tissue from the affected area, and the pathologist examines the sample under a microscope for any cancer cells.
  • Testing the lymph nodes – the lymph nodes are often the first place cancer cells spread outside the primary site. Some or all of the lymph nodes are removed and checked for cancerous cells.
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan
  • PET Scan
  • Ultrasound
  • X-ray – of your head and neck to check for tumours or damage to the bones.

Some tests may be repeated during or after treatment to check how well the treatment is working. Waiting for the test results can be a stressful time. It may help to talk to a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

What is the treatment for head and neck cancer?

The main treatments for head and neck cancers are surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. You may have one of these treatments, or a combination.

The treatment will depend on:

  • The type, size and location of the tumour
  • Your age, medical history and general health
  • Whether, and how far, the cancer has spread
  • The types of symptoms and side effects you experience.

For more information on the treatment of head and neck cancers please refer to the Understanding Head and Neck Cancer booklet.

What is the prognosis?

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. You may wish to discuss your prognosis and treatment options with your doctor, but it is not possible for any doctor to predict the exact course of the disease. Instead, your doctor can give you an idea about the general prognosis for people with the same type and stage of cancer.

In most cases, the earlier head and neck cancer is diagnosed , the better the chances of successful treatment.

To work out your prognosis , your doctor will consider your test results; the type of head and neck cancer and the rate of growth; how well you respond to treatment; and other factors such as your age, general fitness and medical history.

Discussing your prognosis and thinking about the future can be challenging and stressful. It may help to talk with family and friends. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support.

What support is available?

Whether you have been diagnosed with a head and neck cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.

Find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help.

For more information on head and neck cancer please refer to the Understanding Head and Neck Cancer booklet. You can download a PDF or order a hard copy.

Visit our Community Resources page for videos from recent Head & Neck Forums.