Types of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers include cancers of the mouth and the throat, as well as some rarer cancers. These include cancer of the sinuses (air spaces in the bones of the face), the salivary glands, or the nose or middle ear.

Mouth cancer can develop on the lip, tongue, or anywhere inside the mouth. The most common places are the side of the tongue or floor of the mouth.

Throat cancer can mean different parts of the neck. When doctors talk about throat cancers, they mean the parts called the pharynx and the larynx (voicebox). People may also use the word throat to talk about cancers of the thyroid, oesophagus (gullet) or wind pipe (trachea). These are treated differently.

Doctors also describe head and neck cancers according to the type of cell they start in. Most are squamous cell cancers, which start in the cells lining the mouth, nose and throat.

Head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers include cancers of the mouth and the throat, as well as rarer cancers of the nose, sinuses, salivary glands and middle ear.

People use the word ‘throat’ to mean different parts of the neck. These include the:

  • pharynx
  • voicebox (larynx)
  • thyroid gland
  • food pipe (oesophagus)
  • wind pipe (trachea).

When talking about throat cancers, doctors mean the pharynx and larynx. We have more information about cancer of the larynx.

Cancers affecting the thyroid gland, oesophagus and trachea are treated differently and we have more information about them.

It is important to know what type of head and neck cancer you have to make sure you have the right information. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse if you are unsure. Head and neck cancers do not include cancers affecting the brain.


Mouth cancers (oral cancers)

Mouth cancer can develop on the:

  • lip
  • tongue
  • floor of the mouth (under the tongue) inside of the cheek
  • roof of the mouth (the hard palate)
  • area behind the wisdom teeth
  • gum.

The most common places for cancer to develop inside the mouth are the side of the tongue and the floor of the mouth.

We have more information about mouth cancer.

The oral cavity
The oral cavity

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Throat cancers

The pharynx

The pharynx (see diagram below) is divided into three main parts:

Nasopharynx – this is the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose. Cancers that develop here are are called nasopharyngeal cancers.

Oropharynx – this is the middle part, behind the mouth. It includes the:

  • soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate)
  • the base of the tongue (the part you can see)
  • the tonsils and the side walls of the throat.

Cancers that develop in the oropharynx are called oropharyngeal cancers.

Hypopharynx – this is the lower part of the pharynx. Cancers in this area are called hypopharyngeal cancers.

The cross-section of the head
The cross-section of the head

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The voice box (larynx)

This is a short passageway in front of the lower pharynx (hypopharynx). It contains the vocal cords. We have more information about cancer of the larynx.


Rarer cancers of the head and neck

Cancer of the sinuses (paranasal sinuses)

There are air spaces called sinuses (see the diagram above) in the bones of the face, alongside the cheekbone and nose. Cancers can develop in the lining of these sinuses.

We have more information about nasal and sinus cancers.

Cancer of the salivary glands

Salivary glands make saliva, which keeps the mouth moist. There are three major pairs of salivary glands:

• parotid glands – which are on each side of the face, just in front of the ears 

• submandibular glands – which are under each side of the jawbone 

• sublingual glands – which are under the floor of the mouth and below either side of the tongue. 

Salivary gland cancer is most likely to develop in the parotid glands.

Cancer of the middle ear

Rarely, cancer can develop in the middle ear. The middle ear is made up of the eardrum and a cavity called the tympanum, which contains three little bones (the malleus, incus, and stapes). These bones connect the eardrum to the inner ear.

The tympanum is connected to the nasopharynx by a tube called the Eustachian tube. 


Head and neck cancer and cell type

Head and neck cancers are also described according to the type of cell the cancer started in.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)

The most common type of head and neck cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. About 9 out of 10 head and neck cancers (90%) start in squamous cells, which are the cells lining the mouth, nose and throat.

Other cell types

A small number of head and neck cancers develop from other types of cells:

  • Lymphomas develop from white blood cells called lymphocytes.
  • Adenocarcinomas develop from cells that line the glands in the body.
  • Sarcomas develop from the cells that make up muscles, cartilage, bone or blood vessels.

Back to Understanding head and neck cancers

What is cancer?

There are more than 200 different kinds of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.

Why do cancers come back?

Sometimes, tiny cancer cells are left behind after cancer treatment. These can divide to form a new tumour.