Head and neck cancer is a group of cancers that develop in or around the mouth, throat, nasal passages or voice box (larynx). Like other cancers, head and neck cancers form tumors. These tumors are made of cells that grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. Head and neck cancers can also spread (metastasize) to other parts of your body.

Most head and neck cancers start in cells in the moist linings inside your, nose, mouth or throat. This type of cancer is called squamous cell carcinoma.

Head and neck cancers include:

  • Oral cavity cancers: These cancers start in your mouth.

  • Oropharyngeal cancers: These start in the back of your mouth or the upper part of your throat.

  • Hypopharyngeal cancers: These cancers start in the part of your throat that leads down to your larynx.

  • Laryngeal cancers: These start in your larynx.

  • Nasal and sinus cancers: These cancers start in your nasal passages or in the nasal sinuses that drain into your nose.

  • Nasopharyngeal cancers: These start in the back part of your nose that extends down to the back of your throat.

You may be at higher risk for head and neck cancer if you drink alcohol or use tobacco, whether that involves smoking, snuffing or chewing. People who both drink and use tobacco products are at the highest risk for head and neck cancers. Other risk factors include:

  • Being male

  • Being older than 40

  • Having poor dental and oral hygiene

  • Having been infected with certain viruses. Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis, increases your risk for nasopharyngeal cancer. Human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted virus, increases your risk for several head and neck cancers.

Signs and symptoms of head and neck cancer depend on what type you have, but they may include:

  • A lump, swelling or sore that does not go away — the most common symptom

  • Persistent sore throat or bad breath

  • A voice change

  • Nasal obstruction or difficulty breathing

  • Jaw or ear pain

  • Weight loss

  • Fatigue

Doctors diagnose head and neck cancer with a complete head and neck exam. This may include imaging studies of your head and neck area — X-rays, CT scan, MRI or PET scan. You also may have a procedure called a panendoscopy. You would be under anesthesia, and your doctor would use a thin, lighted scope to check all areas of your mouth, nose, throat and larynx. Your doctor may remove a piece of tissue (a biopsy) to examine under a microscope. A biopsy is the only way to get a definitive diagnosis of head and neck cancer.

With this information, you doctor can stage your cancer. The stage of your cancer indicates how much your cancer has grown and spread. Stages run from 1 to 4, with stage 4 being the most advanced.

Head and neck cancer can be cured when it is found at an early stage. The best treatment for you will depend on the type of head and neck cancer you have and the stage of your cancer.