Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers are classified according to where they appear in the head and/or neck. Most are caused by the same basic malignancy: squamous cell carcinoma, or cancer of the squamous cells.

Squamous cells are a type of cell that can be found in many places in the body. They form the outermost layer of the skin, which is where squamous cell carcinomas most frequently appear. However, squamous cells also line the body’s mucous membranes, including the mouth, throat, nose, and tongue. Consequently, much of the tissue in the head and neck region consists of squamous cells.

Throat cancer

The throat is a tube that extends from the sinuses to the openings of the esophagus and windpipe. It includes structures such as the base of the tongue, the voice box, and the tonsils.

Throat cancers are classified according to where they arise in the throat. There are four main types of throat cancer:

  • Nasopharyngeal cancer (located in the upper part of the throat, behind the sinuses)
  • Laryngeal cancer (located in the larynx, or voice box)
  • Oropharyngeal cancer (located in the middle part of the throat, including the base of the tongue and the tonsils)
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer (located in the lower part of the throat, above the esophagus and windpipe)

Most throat cancers develop in squamous cells. Risk factors for throat cancers including smoking, alcohol consumption, and, in the case of oropharyngeal cancer, HPV infection.

Oral cavity cancer

Oral cavity cancers arise anywhere on the lips or in the tissues of the mouth, including the front of the tongue, under the tongue (floor of mouth), cheek, and the palate. These cancers may be discovered during a routine visit to the dentist or by your primary care provider.

Nasal cavity and sinus cancer

Nasal cavity and sinus cancers develop in the nose and/or sinuses. Most of these cancers are squamous cell carcinomas, but some can be melanomas (occurring in cells called melanocytes) or sarcomas (occurring in connective tissues).

Exposure to dust or industrial chemicals in the workplace can increase your risk for nasal cavity and sinus cancers.

Salivary gland cancer

One of the rarer types of head and neck cancer, salivary gland cancers can develop in any of the salivary glands, including the parotid, submandibular, and sublingual glands. There are also a number of benign salivary tumors which can arise in these areas and often must be removed.

Thyroid cancer

The thyroid is a gland at the front of the neck. It produces hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism. Although thyroid tumors tend to grow slowly, left alone they can be quite damaging and still spread.

Learn more about Siteman’s approach to thyroid cancer.

Skin cancer

The head and neck are common locations for skin cancers to develop. Skin cancers are classified according to the type of cells they originate in. In addition to squamous cell carcinoma, other types of skin cancer include basal cell carcinoma (which develops in basal cells) and melanoma (which develops in melanocytes). Melanoma is the most aggressive type of skin cancer.


Read more about skin cancer care at Siteman.