Head and Neck Cancer


What is Head & Neck Cancer?

About 4% of all U.S. cancers are found in the head and neck. They often begin in the moist tissues that line parts of the nose, mouth and throat. When caught early, head and neck cancers are very treatable. Mercy’s cancer specialists are highly skilled at treating all types of head and neck cancers, helping those affected achieve the best outcomes.

Types of Head & Neck Cancer

Your head and neck house about 25 body parts, including your nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, voice box, thyroid and many others. Cancer that develops in these areas is called head and neck cancer. But specific types are named for the area in which cancer begins.

Thyroid Cancer

Thyroid cancer forms in your thyroid gland ― the butterfly-shaped organ at the base of your throat that regulates metabolism and other body processes. Several types of thyroid cancers can develop, with varying degrees of aggressiveness. Learn more about thyroid cancer.

Throat Cancer

Throat cancer is the most common head and neck cancer in the U.S., and at Mercy. There are different types of throat cancer, depending on the part of the throat affected:

  • the nasopharynx (upper) of the throat
  • the oropharynx (middle) of the throat
  • the hypopharynx (bottom) of the throat

Cancer can also develop in the larynx (voice box), which sits at the top of the trachea (windpipe) and contains the vocal cords. Laryngeal cancer often starts in the cells lining the inside of the voice box. 

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer is also known as nasopharyngeal carcinoma or NPC and is a rare type of head and neck cancer. It starts from epithelial cells that line the upper part of the throat. Nasopharyngeal cancer has three main types, based on the types of cells involved, including:

  • Non-keratinizing undifferentiated carcinoma (the most common type of nasopharyngeal cancer in the U.S.)
  • Non-keratinizing differentiated carcinoma
  • Keratinizing squamous-cell carcinoma (this type of nasopharyngeal cancer is associated with the Epstein-Barr virus)

NPC treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer and may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy or surgery.

Nose Cavity & Paranasal Sinus Cancer

Cancer can develop in the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses (spaces between the bones around the nose). This type of cancer is often referred to as nasal and sinus cancer. The most common types of nasal and sinus cancer include:

  • Squamous carcinoma – cancer that develops in the thin, flat cells that form the top skin layer of the maxillary sinuses (air-filled spaces in the cheek area, below the eyes and on the sides of the nose)
  • Salivary gland cancer – a rare disease in which cancer forms in salivary-gland tissues
  • Esthesioneuroblastoma (olfactory neuroblastoma) – cancer that starts in the nerves that affect your sense of smell
  • Sarcomas - tumors that develop in the soft tissue, cartilage and bone of the nasal cavity or skull base
  • Melanoma – cancer that starts in the nasal-cavity mucosa (moist inner lining)
  • Lymphomas – cancers that start in immune-system cells of the nasal and sinus cavities

Head & Neck Cancer Risk Factors

Anyone can get head and neck cancers. But certain risk factors make you more likely to develop them. Head and neck cancer risk factors include the following:

Alcohol & Tobacco Use

Using alcohol and tobacco (including smokeless or chewing tobacco and exposure to secondhand smoke) are the top two risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially in the mouth and voice box. Using tobacco and alcohol together makes your risk even higher than using either substance alone.

HPV Infection

HPV infection (especially with type 16) is a risk factor for cancers of the tonsils and tongue. U.S. cases of oropharyngeal (throat) cancers caused by HPV infection are rising, and 90% are caused by chronic HPV infection

Paan (Betel Quid) Use

Paan (or betel quid) is chewing tobacco made with betel leaves that are popular in Southeast Asia. But it’s strongly associated with an increased risk of mouth cancers.

Occupational Exposure

Exposure to asbestos and synthetic fibers can raise your risk of voice box cancer. People who work in construction, metals, textiles, ceramics, logging and food manufacturing may be more vulnerable. Risks of paranasal sinus and nasal cavity cancers increase with exposure to wood dust, nickel dust and formaldehyde.

Radiation Exposure

Previous radiation therapy to the head and neck for noncancerous or cancerous conditions raises your risk for salivary gland cancer.

Epstein-Barr Virus Infection

Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus (more commonly known as the virus that causes mononucleosis) is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal (throat) and salivary gland cancers.


People with Asian ancestry (particularly Chinese) have an increased risk of developing nasopharyngeal (upper throat) cancer.

Genetic Disorders

Inherited conditions like Fanconi anemia (a rare disease affecting bone marrow) increase the risk of developing head and neck as well as other cancers.

Head & Neck Cancer Signs & Symptoms

Symptoms of head and neck cancer vary, depending on the kind you have. Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer commonly include the following:

  • A lump in your neck or cheek
  • Persistent pain in your mouth
  • A red or white patch on your gums or tongue
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Voice changes, including hoarseness
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Frequent nosebleeds

One of these symptoms on its own may not mean you’ve developed cancer, but it’s important to take them seriously. If your symptoms persist, share your concerns with your Mercy doctor.

Diagnosis & Treatment for Head & Neck Cancer

At Mercy, we’ve helped many people overcome head and neck cancer. Our goal is to provide the most advanced treatments with the fewest possible side effects.

Learn about diagnosis and treatment options for head and neck cancers.

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