Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center

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Learn about Head & Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is a term used to describe a variety of soft tissue cancers that occur in the mouth, throat, tongue, lips, larynx, salivary glands, thyroid gland, and the skin of the face and neck. Each of these cancers involves the uncontrolled growth of cells and is often the result of tobacco use. The most common type of malignant tumor in the head and neck area is Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCCA).

Oral Cancer

Parts of the mouth

Oral cancer is cancer found in the oral cavity (the mouth area) and the oropharynx (the throat area at the back of the mouth). The oral cavity includes the lips, teeth and gums; the lining inside the lips and cheeks; the floor of the mouth (under the tongue); the top of the mouth; and the small area behind the wisdom teeth. The oropharynx includes the back one-third of the tongue; the soft palate; the tonsils; and the back of the throat.

Oral tumors can develop anywhere in the oral cavity and oropharynx. Some tumors are benign (non-cancerous), some may be precancerous (a condition that may become cancerous), while others may be malignant (cancerous). There are many forms of benign tumors that can appear in the oral cavity or oropharynx. Some of these benign tumors disappear on their own, while others may have to be removed surgically.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is anything that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. Although these factors can increase a person’s risk, they do not necessarily cause the disease.

Although heredity plays a factor, certain lifestyle habits and health conditions can increase a person’s risk for developing oral cancer. These include:

  • Tobacco use—90 percent of oral cancers are caused by smoking cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco and snuff. Tobacco can damage the cells in the lining of the oral cavity and the oropharynx, causing abnormal cells to grow more rapidly to repair the damage
  • Alcohol use—75 to 80 percent of patients with oral cancer use alcohol frequently
  • Sunlight—Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can cause skin cancer. More than 30 percent of lip cancer diagnoses are in persons with outdoor occupations
  • Chronic irritation—Chronic irritation to the lining of the mouth, due to poorly fitting dentures or other reasons, may increase a person’s risk for oral cancer
  • Lack of fruits and vegetables in diet—Research has suggested that fruits and vegetables, which contain antioxidants that can “trap” harmful molecules, can decrease the risk for oral cancer
  • Alcohol-containing mouthwash
  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Gender—Oral cancer is twice as common in men than in women

Laryngeal Cancer

Parts of the mouth and neck

Laryngeal cancer includes cancerous cells found in any part of the larynx (often called the voice box). The larynx is a two-inch long tube-shaped organ located in the neck at the top of the trachea (windpipe).

The area of the larynx where the vocal cords are located is called the glottis. The area above the cords is called the supraglottis, and the area below the cords is called the subglottis. The epiglottis is a flap at the top of the trachea that closes over the larynx to protect it from food that is swallowed into the esophagus.

Risk Factors

While the exact cause of laryngeal cancer is not yet known, there are certain risk factors that have been identified for the disease. A risk factor is anything that may increase a person’s chance of developing a disease. Risk factors for laryngeal cancer include the following:

  • Tobacco use
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Poor nutrition
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Weakened immune system

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