Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers comprise many different forms, including brain, eyes, spine, salivary gland, thyroid, sinuses, mouth, throat (pharynx) and voice box (larynx). These cancers usually spread to the lymph nodes closest to the affected area. 

The disease may take six months to three years before spreading.


The physician determines the stage of the cancer based on the tumor's size and location, the size and number of lymph nodes affected and how much it has spread to distant parts of the body. Stage I is the mildest form of the disease, while stage IV is the worst form. Staging is important because it helps doctors develop the best treatment plan.

A large lymph node in the neck may be either easily seen and felt or hard to discover. In diagnosing the disease, doctors have several options, including:

  • Examining the ears, nose, pharynx, larynx, tonsils, base of the tongue and thyroid and salivary glands
  • X-rays and computed tomography (CT) scans of various areas of the head and neck
  • Biopsy. The whole mass is usually removed, rather than taking only a small tissue sample. It is examined under the microscope to see if cancer is present.


  • Surgery and radiation. Stage I cancers are treated with both. Larger cancers are surgically removed. If cancer returns, surgery and radiation may be done again.
  • Chemotherapy. Anti-cancer drugs kill cancer cells throughout the body. Whether combining chemotherapy with surgery and radiation improves the chances for cure is not yet known. In later-stage cancers, chemotherapy is used to shrink the tumor and relieve pain.

The side effects of treatments may include difficulty swallowing and talking, skin changes, loss of taste and inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestines.