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What are the Different Types of Head and Neck Cancers?

Many types of cancer can affect the head and neck region, but only some cancers are categorized as head and neck cancers.

Head and neck cancers can refer to many different types of cancers located in the head and neck region. But other cancers in this area of the body may given their own category.

Cancers are diseases that occur when some of the cells that make up the body begin to grow uncontrollably. There are many different types of cancer, and cancers are typically named or categorized based on the location in the body where the uncontrolled growth of cells begins. One example is “head and neck” cancers.

Head and neck cancers can refer to many different types of cancers located in the head and neck region—but there are also several cancers that affect this region that are not typically categorized as head and neck cancers.

Here, we take a closer look at what is considered a head and neck cancer, and what is not.

What is a head and neck cancer?
Head and neck cancers can refer to cancers that are located in and around the mouth, nose, sinuses, and the structures that make up the neck:

  • While technically a type of skin cancer, cancer on the lips is included in the category of “head and neck” cancers.
  • Oral cancers are cancers that begin in the mouth—the gums, the roof of the mouth, in and around the tongue, and the back of the mouth.
  • Cancers that begin in the glands that produce saliva are called salivary gland cancers. There are many different types, and some are more common than others. There are also benign tumors that occur in these glands. In general, salivary gland cancers are uncommon when compared to other types of head and neck cancers.
  • Cancers that begin in the tissues and structures that form in the back of the mouth and the throat (called the pharynx). The throat connects the mouth to the trachea (windpipe) and esophagus. Cancers in this region can be categorized based on the section of the throat affected—the upper part (nasopharynx), middle part (oropharynx), and lower part (hypopharynx). Cancer of the oropharynx (oropharyngeal cancer) is the most common among this group.
  • Laryngeal cancer is cancer of the larynx, also known as the voice box. This is the part of the throat that contains the vocal cords, and allows a person to talk, swallow, and breathe normally.
  • Cancers of the nasal cavity and sinuses. The nasal cavity is the space just behind the nose, where air passes on the way to the throat. The paranasal sinuses are areas that surround the nasal cavity.
  • Sarcomas can also occur in the head and neck. These cancers begin in connective tissues, including (but not limited to) bone, cartilage, and muscle.

What is not considered a head and neck cancer?
The majority of head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This is a type of cancer that begins in cells called squamous cells, which are found in the lining of tissues and organs throughout the body.

Squamous cells are also found on the surface of the skin. However, skin cancers are typically considered their own category, and are therefore not typically categorized as head and neck cancers. There are other cancers that occur in the head and neck region that are not typically classified as head and neck cancers. These include:

  • Cancer and tumors in the brain
  • Eye cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Cancer of the esophagus

Treatment for head and neck cancer will depend on the location of the cancer, the type of cancer, the stage, and many other factors about the cancer and the person being treated. If you have questions about a diagnosis of head and neck cancer and the potential treatment options, your best source of information will be a healthcare provider.

Article sources open article sources

American Cancer Society. What Is Cancer?
American Cancer Society. Head and Neck Cancers.
National Cancer Institute. Head and Neck Cancers.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Head and Neck Cancers.
National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Oral Cancer.
American Cancer Institute. What is Salivary Gland Cancer?
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Types of Throat Cancer.
National Cancer Institute. Larynx.
Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center. What is Sarcoma of the Head and Neck?
Penn Medicine Abramson Cancer Center. Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the Head and Neck.
National Cancer Institute. Oropharyngeal Cancer Treatment (Adult) (PDQ)–Patient Version.

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