Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers mostly grow inside your mouth, nose, throat or sinuses. Sometimes they start in the saliva glands or lymph nodes. All too often, the cancer will spread over the head or neck, and sometimes to the lungs. It’s very rare for other parts of the body to be affected, but it happens.

Smoking, chewing tobacco or betel nut, and heavy drinking can also aggravate these cancers and make treatment more difficult.

In more detail

Most head and neck cancers are known as mucosal, which refers to the mucus membranes where they are most commonly found. These membranes are the soft, moist linings of the hollow areas of your head: your mouth, nose, sinuses, larynx – your voice box, and pharynx – your throat. Each area is open to the surrounding air, and the mucus membranes keep the inner cavity surfaces protected.

The lymph nodes and the salivary glands produce the fluid saliva that keeps the mucus membranes moist. These are also vulnerable to adenocarcinoma, a cancer that begins in glands.

Cancers of the brain, eye and thyroid are not grouped with the mucosal variety, nor are cancers of the scalp, skin, muscles and bones of the head.

Head and neck cancers are highly likely to spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, and also to the lungs. More rarely they spread to other parts of the body, including the liver, bone or brain.



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Side effects of radiation therapy

Each person’s experience with radiation treatment for head and neck cancer is different and will depend on your general health and other treatments you’re receiving.

Your treatment team will help you understand the side effects of your particular treatment, but these could include:

  • sore throat or mouth
  • trouble swallowing
  • loss of appetite
  • alterations in sense of smell and taste
  • loss of facial hair
  • loosening of dentures
  • skin irritation and redness