Being Well

The Facts About Head and Neck Cancer

Learning as much as you can about head and neck cancer can give you the best chance at early and effective treatment. Discover the symptoms, risk factors and prevention methods to keep yourself healthy.

Head and neck cancer includes a variety of cancers and body parts. In fact, it affects more than 30,000 people each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Learn more about this type of cancer, as well as risk factors and prevention tips, to know and protect your health.

What Is It, Exactly?

Head and neck cancer is a general term that describes any cancer that affects your head or neck in some way. As the American Society of Clinical Oncology states, there are five general types:

  1. Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal (affects your voice box)
  2. Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus (affects the space behind your nose where air goes through on its way to your throat and the nearby sinuses)
  3. Nasopharyngeal (affects the air passageway at the upper part of your throat that’s behind your nose)
  4. Oral and oropharyngeal (affects your mouth, tongue and/or the middle of your throat)
  5. Salivary gland (affects where you get your saliva)


Symptoms for these cancers vary by type. There are a few symptoms, however, that are shared by different kinds of head and neck cancers and should trigger a call to schedule a checkup with your doctor. Pain while swallowing, severe ear ache, a persistently hoarse voice, or chronic neck pain can all be symptoms of different types of head and neck cancers, according to National Cancer Institute. Any discoloration in your mouth, unusual bleeding, or swelling in your jaw or mouth area should also prompt a call to your doctor.

Risk Factors

Head and neck cancers do have risk factors associated with them. Excessive tobacco (smoking or chewing) and/or alcohol use have been linked to higher incidences of these types of cancers. Furthermore, human papillomavirus (HPV) has been linked to certain types of head and neck cancers, specifically in the oral cavity. According to the National Cancer Institute, HPV has been linked to cancers of the middle part of the throat, including the soft palate, tongue, and tonsils. Other risk factors for these types of cancer include radiation exposure and poor oral health practices.


Fortunately, there are some lifestyle habits that can decrease your risk of getting certain types of head and neck cancers. One way to cut down your chance of getting oral or larynx cancer is to stop using tobacco, either smoking or chewing. Talk to your doctor about your plans to quit and find out if you may be a good candidate for a smoking cessation program such as a nicotine patch or other prescription medicines. Tell your friends and family that you’re quitting tobacco and consider attending a peer support group. They can cheer you on as you make this positive lifestyle change. Decreasing your alcohol consumption can also lead to a smaller risk of certain head and neck cancers.

Also, practice safer sex to avoid exposure to HPV. Use condoms correctly and consistently, as well as ask about your partner’s sexual history and infections prior to being sexually active. Finally, talk with your doctor about if HPV immunization would be effective for you and your lifestyle.

Head and neck cancer can be a scary diagnosis. However, with the right information and preventative lifestyle choices you can decrease your chance of getting it or increase your chance of catching it early.

The best way to prevent and treat head and neck cancer is to get yourself screened. UVA Cancer Center hosts free screenings throughout the year. For patients of the UVA Cancer Center who would like to quit smoking, we offer a smoking cessation program.

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Haley Burress
Haley Burress