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, the front two-thirds of the tongue, or anywhere inside the mouth. The most common places are the side of the tongue or floor of the mouth.

Throat cancer can develop in different areas. The term throat cancer covers the area called the pharynx and the larynx (voicebox). The pharynx is divided into three main parts; the nasopharynx, the oropharynx and the hypopharynx. The larynx is in front of the hypopharynx.

Cancers of the thyroid, oesophagus (gullet) or wind pipe (trachea), near to the throat, are treated differently.

Most head and neck cancers start in the cells that line the mouth, nose and throat. These are called squamous cell cancers. A small number of head and neck cancers develop from other types of cells.

Head and neck cancers

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

People may use the word throat to describe different parts of the neck. These include the:

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

When doctors talk about throat cancers, they mean the pharynx and larynx.

Cancers affecting the thyroid gland, oesophagus and trachea are treated differently and are not explained in this information. 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.

We have separate information about cancer of the thyroid, oesophagus and trachea, and about brain tumours.


Mouth cancers (oral cancers)

Mouth cancer can develop on the:

  • lip
  • tongue (front two-thirds)
  • 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 on the side of the tongue and the floor of the mouth.

The oral cavity.
The oral cavity.

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Throat cancers

The pharynx

The pharynx is divided into three main parts:

  • Nasopharynx – This is the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose. Cancers that develop here are called nasopharyngeal cancers.
  • Oropharynx – 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 (the part you cannot see), the tonsils and the side walls of the throat. The most common places in the oropharynx for cancer to develop are on the tonsils and the base of the tongue. Cancers that develop here are called oropharyngeal cancers.
  • Hypopharynx – This is the lower part of the pharynx, behind the voice box. Cancers that develop here are called hypopharyngeal cancers.

We have more information about cancers of the nasopharynx and oropharynx.

The voice box (larynx)

The larynx is the voice box. It is a short passageway in front of the hypopharynx (lower pharynx). It contains the vocal cords.

We have separate information about cancer of the larynx and how it is treated.

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

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Watch: all about Paul's experiences

Watch: all about Paul's experiences


Rarer cancers of the head and neck

Cancer of the sinuses (paranasal sinuses)

There are air spaces called sinuses in the bones of the face, next to the cheekbone and nose. Cancers can develop in the lining of these sinuses.

Cancer of the salivary glands

Salivary glands make saliva (spit), which keeps the mouth moist. The biggest pairs of salivary glands are the:

  • 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 of the mouth and below either side of the tongue.

The most common place for salivary gland cancer to develop is 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. The tympanum contains three small bones – the malleus, incus and stapes. These bones connect the eardrum to the inner ear.

The ear
The ear

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


Head and neck cancers and cell type

Head and neck cancers are also described based on 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. Squamous cells line 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.