Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers are types of cancer that originate in various regions of the head and neck, including the oral cavity, salivary glands, paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity, pharynx, and larynx. As specialists in this field, we offer personalized treatment options to help you overcome cancer and lead a fulfilling life beyond it.

Every year in the United States, about 40,000 individuals are diagnosed with various types of head and neck cancers, including oral and throat cancers.

Cause of head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers arise when cells within these regions undergo genetic mutations and grow uncontrollably, forming tumors that can metastasize to other areas of the body. The most prevalent type of tumor in this region is squamous cell carcinoma, originating from the squamous cells lining the nose, mouth, and throat. While the exact cause of these cancers and the underlying genetic mutations remains unknown, research has identified several risk factors.

Whether you've already received a diagnosis and a referral or are concerned about potential symptoms, schedule an appointment today. Our team of specialists in head and neck cancer is prepared to assist you.


Symptoms of head and neck cancer

If you notice any of these common symptoms, it's crucial to seek medical attention promptly:

  • A lump or thickening in the cheek

  • A lump or mass in the neck

  • A sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal—often the primary symptom

  • Persistent sore throat or sensation of something lodged in the throat

  • White or red patches on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or mouth lining

  • Chronic bad breath

  • Tooth mobility or jaw pain

  • Oral discomfort

  • Tongue or mouth numbness

  • Jaw swelling causing discomfort with dentures

  • Difficulty chewing or swallowing

  • Jaw or tongue mobility issues

  • Changes in voice

  • Unexplained weight loss

If you observe any of these signs, don't delay in scheduling an appointment for evaluation.


Types of head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers can manifest in various forms, but these are the most common:

  • Laryngeal cancer: Originates in the voice box

  • Hypopharyngeal cancer: Arises in the lower section of the throat, situated beside and behind the voice box

  • Nasal cavity cancer: Starts in the opening behind the nose

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer: Develops in the upper portion of the throat, positioned behind the nasal cavity

  • Oral cavity cancer: Starts in the mouth

  • Oropharyngeal cancer: Starts in back of the mouth or the throat, and may include the salivary glands

  • Paranasal sinus cancer: Originates in the cavities surrounding or adjacent to the nose, known as sinuses


Head and neck cancer FAQs


What is the survival rate for head and neck cancer?

The 5-year relative survival rates for oral and throat cancers, including all stages combined, (based on data from individuals diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer between 2008 and 2014) are:

Floor of the mouth: 53%

Gum: 59%

Lip: 88%

Throat and tonsil: 69%

Tongue: 66%

How can you reduce the risk of head and neck cancer?

Although the exact cause of head and neck cancers remains unknown, certain risk factors have been identified. By avoiding these factors, you can significantly reduce your risk:

  • Limit tobacco and alcohol consumption: Tobacco and alcohol are major contributors to these cancers. Avoiding smoking altogether is the best preventive measure. If you do drink, do so in moderation or abstain entirely.

  • Minimize exposure to human papillomavirus (HPV): Infections from HPV, particularly through oral sex and multiple partners, can increase the risk of mouth and throat cancers.

  • Reduce UV light exposure: Prolonged exposure to UV light is a known risk factor for lip cancer and skin cancer. Take steps to limit your exposure to UV radiation.

  • Maintain a healthy diet: Eating a balanced and nutritious diet can help support overall health and may lower the risk of developing cancer.

  • Ensure properly fitted dentures: Ill-fitting dentures can cause irritation and inflammation, which may contribute to the development of oral cancers.

  • Address precancerous lesions: Areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia in the mouth can sometimes progress to cancer. If identified, these lesions are often removed to prevent cancerous growth.

Is head and neck cancer curable?

Yes, when detected in the early stages and when treated properly.


Your multidisciplinary care team

At CU Medicine, a compassionate team of healthcare professionals from various disciplines collaborate to devise a personalized care plan tailored to your needs. They accompany you from your first consultation through treatment and follow-up care. Your proficient medical team may comprise:

  • Medical oncologists

  • Radiation oncologists

  • Head and neck cancer surgeons

  • Pathologists

  • Radiologists

  • Oncology nurses

  • Nutritionists

  • Social workers

  • Speech-language pathologists

Our comprehensive team of specialists extends their expertise to address cancers affecting the lymph nodes of the upper neck at CU Medicine. We collaborate closely with our peers on the Head and Neck Tumor Board to assess unique cases and strategize optimal approaches, particularly for individuals facing challenges with advanced thyroid cancer where conventional therapies fall short. 

If you're grappling with advanced or rare thyroid cancer, our medical oncologists, endocrinologists, thyroid cancer surgeons, and radiation oncologists collectively evaluate your condition to devise a tailored care plan tailored to your specific requirements. 

Furthermore, you may have the opportunity to participate in clinical trials investigating novel chemotherapy and radiation therapies.


Clinical trials

Your medical team may also recommend participation in a clinical trial. We conduct hundreds of these trials of new treatments or drugs through our University of Colorado Cancer Center.

Participating in a clinical trial could offer eligible individuals early access to new drugs and vaccines, well before they are available to the general public.

Learn More