Head and neck cancers mostly grow inside your mouth, nose, throat or sinuses. Sometimes they start in the saliva glands or lymph nodes.

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In recent years there has been an increase in head and neck cancers related to the human papilloma virus (HPV). 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.