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Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 09/2022

Cancer begins when healthy cells change and grow out of control, forming a mass called a tumor. A tumor can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumor is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumor means the tumor can grow but will not spread.

About head and neck cancer

“Head and neck cancer” is a medical term used to describe a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx, nose, sinuses, and mouth.

Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer begins in flat squamous cells. These cells make up the thin layer of tissue on the surface of the structures in the head and neck. Beneath this layer, which is called the epithelium, some parts of the head and neck have a layer of moist tissue called the mucosa.

If a cancer is only found in the squamous layer of cells (epithelium), it is called carcinoma in situ. If the cancer has grown beyond this cell layer and moved into the deeper tissue, then it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma. If doctors cannot identify where the cancer began, it is called a cancer of unknown primary. Read more about squamous cell carcinoma of unknown primary in the head and neck.

If a head and neck cancer starts in the salivary glands (see below), the tumor will usually be classified as an adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, or mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

Types of head and neck cancer

There are 5 major types of head and neck cancer, each named according to the part of the body where they develop. For more information about a specific type, visit the guide dedicated to that type of head and neck cancer on this same website.

  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer. The larynx is commonly called the voice box. This tube-shaped organ in the neck is important for breathing, talking, and swallowing. It is located at the top of the windpipe, or trachea. The hypopharynx is also called the gullet. It is the lower part of the throat that surrounds the larynx. Read more about laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer.
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer. The nasal cavity is the space just behind the nose where air passes on its way to the throat. The paranasal sinuses are the air-filled areas that surround the nasal cavity. Read more about nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer. The nasopharynx is the air passageway at the upper part of the throat behind the nose. Read more about nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Oral and oropharyngeal cancer. The oral cavity includes the mouth and tongue. The oropharynx includes the middle of the throat, from the tonsils to the tip of the voice box. Read more about oral and oropharyngeal cancer.
  • Salivary gland cancer. The salivary gland produces saliva. Saliva is the fluid that is released into the mouth to keep it moist and that contains enzymes that begin breaking down food. Read more about salivary gland cancer.

Other types of cancer can also be located in the head and neck region, but the diagnosis and treatment are much different. Specific information about brain tumorsesophageal cancereye cancerparathyroid cancersarcoma, and thyroid cancer is available in other guides on Cancer.Net.