Head and neck cancer refers to cancer which originates in the head and neck region, except the brain and thyroid gland. It is divided into two main categories: nasopharyngeal carcinoma and head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cells are thin, flat cells which form in the surface of the mucous membrane.
Cancers of the head and neck occur when cancerous cells develop and grow in an uncontrolled way forming tumours. Not all tumours in the head and neck are cancerous.4
Cancers of the head and neck include the following areas: 4,5
- Mouth (oral cavity) – including lips, cheeks, hard palate and the first two thirds of the tongue, as well as the gums and tonsils.
- Larynx – is also known as the voice box, and contains the vocal cords used for making sound. The larynx connects the windpipe (tube that connects to the lungs) with the lower part of the throat.
- Pharynx – also known as the throat. Cancer can affect any three areas that make up the pharynx including:
- Nasopharynx – this is the upper part of the throat, behind the nose
- Oropharynx – include the base of the tongue to the tonsils in the back of the throat
- Hypopharynx – is the lower region of the throat, including behind the voice box.
- Nasal cavity and sinuses – the nasal cavity is the area inside the nose. The area behind the nose consists of four sinuses which impact on the sound and tone of speech.
- Salivary glands – is where saliva is produced to help digest food and protect against infections. Most of the tumours found here are typically benign (non-cancerous).