Head and Neck Cancer – Overview
“Head and neck cancer” is the 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 the flat squamous cells that make up the thin layer of tissue on the surface of the structures in the head and neck. Directly beneath this lining, which is called the epithelium, some areas 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, 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 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 main 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.
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.
Nasopharyngeal cancer. The nasopharynx is the air passageway at the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
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.
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.
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