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.