The mouth, throat, nose and ears
Head and neck cancers are named after the part of the body they start in. For example:
- mouth cancer (oral cavity or oral cancers)
- tongue cancer
- throat cancer (cancers of the oropharynx and tonsils, nasopharynx and hypopharynx)
- nose or sinuses (nasal and sinus cancer)
- salivary gland cancer
- middle ear cancer.
If you are not sure which type of head and neck cancer you have ask your cancer doctor or specialist nurse.
Head and neck cancers can develop in the following areas.
The most common places for mouth cancer to develop are on the floor of the mouth and side of the tongue.
The throat is divided into three main parts:
This is the upper part of the pharynx behind the nose. Cancer that develops here is called nasopharyngeal cancer.
This is the middle part of the pharynx behind the mouth. It includes the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), the base or the back of the tongue (part you cannot see), the tonsils and the side walls of the throat. The most common places for oropharyngeal cancer to develop are on the tonsils and the base of the tongue.
This is the lower part of the pharynx behind the voice box. Cancers that develop here are called hypopharyngeal cancers.
The bones around the nasal cavity have small hollow spaces in them called paranasal sinuses. These sinuses affect the sound and tone of your voice.
Cancer that starts inside the nose or paranasal sinuses is called nasal and sinus cancer.
The salivary glands make saliva (spit). This keeps your mouth moist and helps food slide down the gullet into the stomach. The biggest pairs of salivary glands are:
- parotid glands, which are at the sides of the mouth, just in front of the ears
- submandibular glands, which are under each side of the jawbone
- sublingual glands, which are under the floor or the mouth and below each side of the tongue.
There are many more tiny glands in the lining of the nose, mouth and throat. These are known as the minor salivary glands.
The most common place for salivary gland cancer to start is in the parotid glands.
The tympanum is connected to the nasopharynx by a tube called the Eustachian tube.
It is rare for cancer to develop in the middle ear.
Below is a sample of the sources used in our head and neck cancer information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
British Association of Head and Neck Oncologists. Head and Neck Cancer: United Kingdom National Multidisciplinary Guidelines. 2016. Available from: https://www.bahno.org.uk/_userfiles/pages/files/ukheadandcancerguidelines2016.pdf (accessed September 2018).
Brockstein BE, Stenson KM, Song S. Overview of treatment for head and neck cancer. UpToDate https://www.uptodate.com/contents/overview-of-treatment-for-head-and-neck-cancer (accessed Spetember 2018).
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Cancer of the upper aerodigestive tract: assessment and management in people aged 16 and over. 2016. Available from: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng36 (accessed September 2018).
This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.
Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.