Cancer can occur in any of the tissues or organs in the head and neck. There are over 30 different places that cancer can develop in the head and neck area.
Cancers of the oral cavity (mouth)*
The oral cavity (see diagram below) includes the lips and the mouth. Cancer can occur in the tongue, the roof of the mouth (the hard palate), the floor of the mouth (under the tongue), the gums, and the inner lining of the lips and cheeks (sometimes referred to as the buccal mucosa).
The oral cavity: Looking into the mouth
This develops in the oropharynx, the part of the throat that is directly behind the mouth (see diagram below). It includes the soft part of the roof of the mouth (the soft palate), the base of the tongue (the part you can't see), the side walls of the throat (where the tonsils are found) and the back wall of the throat (also called the posterior pharyngeal wall).
Diagram showing a cross-section of the head
Cancer of the nose, paranasal sinus* and nasopharynx*
Cancers can develop in the skin of the nostril and the lining of the nose.
The highest part of the throat, which lies behind the nose, is called the nasopharynx (see diagram below). Cancers that occur here are known as nasopharyngeal cancer.
Alongside the nose, in the bones of the face, lie air spaces known as the sinuses (or paranasal sinuses). Cancers can develop in the linings of these areas too.
Cancer of the ear
Cancer can develop in the structures deep inside the ear, but this is very rare. Most develop in the skin of the ear.
Cancer of the salivary gland*
Cancers affecting the salivary glands are also rare. There are different types of salivary gland cancer, depending on the type of cell that has become cancerous. We have more factsheet on salivary gland cancers.
Cancer of the eye*
Cancers can develop in the skin of the eyelids. Cancers are very unusual in the eye itself. When they do occur, they are usually a type called ocular melanoma. Occasionally a cancer of the white blood cells, called lymphoma, can develop behind the eye. In very rare cases, cancer may spread into the eye from a cancer elsewhere in the body: for example, the breast.
Cancer of the voice box (larynx), cancer of the thyroid gland*
Cancer can also develop in the voice box (larynx) or in the thyroid gland, which are both in the neck.
* JASCAP has separate booklets / factsheets on these particular categories of head and neck cancers.
Types of head and neck cancers
Head and neck cancers are uncommon and only about 7800 people in the UK are diagnosed with them each year.
About 90% of head and neck cancers are of a type called squamous cell carcinoma. These start in the cells that form the lining of the mouth, nose, throat or ear, or the surface layer covering the tongue.
Head and neck cancers can also develop from other types of cells:
- Lymphomas develop from the cells of the lymphatic system.
- Adenocarcinomas develop from cells that form the lining of glands in the body.
- Sarcomas develop from the cells which make up muscles, cartilage or blood vessels.
- Melanomas start from cells called melanocytes, which give colour to the eyes and skin.