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What Is Head and Neck Cancer? 

Head and neck cancer is a general term for cancers that start in those regions of the body. Head and neck cancers include laryngeal (voice box) and hypopharyngeal (lower throat) cancer; oral cavity (tongue and gums) and oropharyngeal (tonsil and back of tongue) cancer; nasopharyngeal (upper throat behind the nose) cancer; nasal cavity and sinus cancer; and salivary gland cancer. Head and neck cancers typically begin in the squamous cells lining the mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck, including the nose, mouth, and throat. 

According to the American Cancer Society, there are approximately 12,600 new cases and 3,700 deaths from laryngeal cancer and about 54,000 new cases and 10,850 deaths from oropharyngeal or oral cavity cancer each year.  

Nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC), nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers, and salivary gland cancer are all very rare, with no set predictions on new cases and deaths provided.  

Head and Neck Cancer Prognosis and Survival Rates 

Head and neck cancer prognosis depends on the type of cancer and the stage at which it is diagnosed. Head and neck cancers account for around 4% of all cancers in the United States. 

The five-year survival rate for head and neck cancer — the percentage of people who live at least five years after the disease is found —varies by the specific type of cancer. It ranges from 61% for nasopharyngeallaryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer to 75% for salivary gland cancer.

Why Come to CU Cancer Center for Head and Neck Cancer  

As the only National Cancer Institute Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in Colorado and one of only four in the Rocky Mountain region, the University of Colorado Cancer Center has doctors who provide cutting-edge, patient-centered head and neck cancer care and researchers focused on diagnostic and treatment innovations. 

CU Cancer Center members have created a Spanish-speaking head and neck clinic, called Esperanza en Español, or E3. The clinic, led by Antonio Jimeno, MD, PhD, is open every Friday from 8 a.m.­–4 p.m. at the Anschutz Cancer Pavilion, 1665 Aurora Court, Aurora, CO 80045, 3rd Floor, GI/Phase I/Head and Neck Cancer Clinic. Please call 720-598-2276 to speak with our patient navigator. Please leave a message if it is the weekend or after hours and we will return your call. 

→ Learn more about how the E3 clinic started

The CU Cancer Center head and neck cancer program also has received a highly competitive Specialized Programs of Research Excellence (SPORE) grant from the National Cancer Institute. Designed to enable the rapid and efficient movement of basic scientific findings into clinical settings, as well as to determine the biological basis for observations made in individuals with cancer or in populations at risk for cancer, the SPORE grant directly impacts our cancer patient population in real time and enables access to and initiation of CU Cancer Center clinical trials that otherwise would not happen. 

The CU Cancer Center has a multidisciplinary program for head and neck cancers. This is a great option for patients who are recently diagnosed, looking for a second opinion, or already in treatment. Our team will gather a group of surgical oncologists, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, dietitians, genetic counselors, and more to make sure each patient is getting the best care that is unique to his/her diagnosis. 

There are numerous head and neck cancer clinical trials being conducted by CU Cancer Center members at any time. These trials offer patients options to traditional head and neck cancer treatment and can result in remission or increased life spans.

Our clinical partnership with UCHealth has produced survival rates higher than the state average for all stages of sinuses and ear cancers, pharynx and other buccal cavity cancers and survival rates that are nearing the state average for all stages of larynx cancer and tonsil cancer.

Larynx Cancer Graph

Number of Patients Diagnosed – UCHealth 142 – State of Colorado 512
Number of Patients Surviving – UCHealth 70 – State of Colorado 267
*n<30, 5 Year Survival – (Date of diagnosis 1/1/2010–12/31/2014)

Pharynx Buccal Cavity Cancers Graph

Number of Patients Diagnosed – UCHealth 35 – State of Colorado 156
Number of Patients Surviving – UCHealth 26 – State of Colorado 91
*n<30, 5 Year Survival – (Date of diagnosis 1/1/2010–12/31/2014)

Nasal Sinus Ear Cancer Graph

Number of Patients Diagnosed – UCHealth 53 – State of Colorado 120
Number of Patients Surviving – UCHealth 32 – State of Colorado 60
*n<30, 5 Year Survival – (Date of diagnosis 1/1/2010–12/31/2014)

Tonsil Cancer Graph

Number of Patients Diagnosed – UCHealth 121 – State of Colorado 464
Number of Patients Surviving – UCHealth 87 – State of Colorado 342
*n<30, 5 Year Survival – (Date of diagnosis 1/1/2010–12/31/2014)

Types of Head and Neck Cancer

Cancers of the head and neck are categorized according to the area in which they begin, typically the mouth, nose, or throat.

Laryngeal cancer starts in the larynx (voice box), while hypopharyngeal cancer starts in the hypopharynx, or lower throat. Almost all cancers in these areas start in the squamous cells, the thin, flat cells that make up the lining of the larynx and throat. Laryngeal cancer is much more common in men than women, and Black men are more likely to develop laryngeal cancer than white men. 

Oral cavity cancer, also known as oral cancer, starts in the mouth, including the tongue and gums, while oropharyngeal cancer starts in the middle of the throat, just behind the oral cavity. Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer are more than twice as common in men as in women. They are slightly more common in white people than Black people. Oral cavity cancer is commonly related to use of tobacco and alcohol products. Oropharyngeal cancer can be related to tobacco and alcohol use as well, but it is more commonly caused by HPV (human papillomavirus).

Nasopharyngeal cancer starts in the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the throat near the base of the skull, behind the nose. The most common type of nasopharyngeal cancer is nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a cancer that starts in the cells lining the nasopharynx. Other types of cancers that can develop in the nasopharynx are lymphomas, which are cancers of immune system cells called lymphocytes; and adenocarcinomas and adenoid cystic carcinomas, which can develop in small salivary glands within the nasopharynx. 

Nasal cavity cancer starts in the opening behind the nose, and sinus cancer begins in the air-filled spaces that surround the bones around the nose. Types of nasal cavity and sinus cancer include:

  • Squamous cell carcinomas, cancer of the flat cells that line the sinuses and the mucus-producing tissue (mucosa) that lines the nasal cavity and sinuses. Squamous cell carcinomas make up just over half of cancers of these areas.
  • Salivary gland cancers formed in minor salivary glands.
  • Sinonasal undifferentiated carcinomas (SNUC), which can form in mucosa cells. 
  • Melanoma, a type of cancer that starts in cells called melanocytes. Melanoma is typically found on sun-exposed areas of the skin, but it also can form on the lining of the nasal cavity and sinuses.
  • Esthesioneuroblastoma, also known as olfactory neuroblastoma, a cancer that starts in the olfactory nerve. It typically starts in the roof of the nasal cavity.
  • Lymphomas, cancers that form in immune system cells called lymphocytes.
  • Sarcoma, a cancer of muscle, bone, cartilage, and fibrous cells that can form anywhere in the body.

Salivary gland cancers are rare cancers arising from one of the glands that makes saliva. The parotid gland is the most frequent site of salivary gland tumors, but they can also originate in the submandibular gland, sublingual gland, and other minor salivary glands throughout the head and neck mucosa. Different types of salivary gland cancers include:

  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma
  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
  • Salivary duct carcinoma
  • Carcinoma ex-pleomorphic adenoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Acinic cell carcinoma
  • Epithelial-myoepithelial carcinoma
  • Polymorphous low-grade adencarcinoma
  • Malignant mixed carcinoma
  • Anaplastic or undifferentiated carcinoma

Risk Factors for Head and Neck Cancer 

Head and neck cancer has multiple risk factors: behaviors or conditions that increase a person’s chances of getting a disease such as cancer. Smoking is a common risk factor among all head and neck cancers. Heavy to moderate alcohol use also is a common risk factor; people who use both tobacco and alcohol are at highest risk. Human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is an increasingly prevalent risk factor and currently is the cause of the majority of oropharynx cancers in North America.

Other risk factors for head and neck cancer include:

  • Epstein-Barr virus infection (most often found in nasopharynx cancers).
  • Use of oral tobacco products like snuff and chewing tobacco.
  • Betel nut chewing.
  • Immunodeficiency (impaired immune system) from chronic infections (like HIV and hepatitis B and C), transplants, hematologic malignancies (including leukemias and lymphomas), and long-term use of medications (including steroids and other immune suppressing medications).
  • Excess body weight.
  • Poor nutrition.
  • Workplace exposure to asbestos, wood dust, paint fumes, and other chemicals.
  • Genetic syndromes including Fanconi anemia and dyskeratosis congenita.
  • Gender: Men are two to three times more likely to develop head and neck cancer.
  • Age: Because they often take years to develop, head and neck cancers are most commonly found in those 50 and older.
  • Exposure to sunlight.
  • Family history of head and neck cancer.

Latest in Head and Neck Cancer from the CU Cancer Center

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Information reviewed by Jessica McDermott, MD, in January 2023.