Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancers account for nearly 4% of all cancers in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. There are five major types of head and neck cancers: oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer, laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer, nasopharyngeal cancer, nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer and salivary gland cancer.

Oral Cavity and Oropharyngeal Cancer

Oral cavity cancer starts in the front portion of the mouth and includes the lips, the inside lining of the lips and cheeks, the gums, most of the tongue, the floor of the mouth and the bony roof of the mouth or hard palate.

Oropharyngeal cancer starts in the middle to back portion of the mouth or throat that can sometimes be seen when the mouth is wide open. This includes the back part of the tongue, the tonsils, the walls of the throat and the soft roof of the mouth or soft palate.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the most common type of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancer. It is usually related to tobacco use, alcohol use or infection by human papillomavirus (HPV).

According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, about 53,000 new cases of oral cancer are diagnosed each year. When you visit the dentist, they will often perform a screening for any signs of oral cancer.

Laryngeal and Hypopharyngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer is a common type of head and neck cancer. Laryngeal cancer is found in the larynx, or voice box, the tube-shaped organ that is involved in breathing, talking and swallowing.

Hypopharyngeal cancer forms in the tissues in the bottom part of the throat and behind the voice box. Squamous cell carcinoma is also the most common type of cancer in this area.

According to the American Cancer Society, there are two main lifestyle factors that can increase your chances of these cancers: alcohol and tobacco use. People that use both alcohol and tobacco have an even higher risk of developing cancer than if using alcohol or tobacco alone. Researchers believe alcohol and tobacco damage the genes of the cells that line the larynx and hypopharynx, leading the cells to grow out of control.

There will be an estimated 12,380 new cases of laryngeal cancer in the U.S. in 2023. Also, 2,000 to 4,000 people will be diagnosed with hypopharyngeal cancer this year.

Nasopharyngeal Cancer

Nasopharyngeal cancer is a type of throat cancer that develops when cancer cells grow in the nasopharynx, the upper part of the throat and the very back portion of the nose. This kind of cancer is rare, with fewer than one in 100,000 people in North America diagnosed with the disease each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Nasopharyngeal cancer is found in males two to three more times than it is in females.

Risk factors for nasopharyngeal cancer are often linked to age, gender, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection and diets heavy with salt-cured foods, as well as tobacco and alcohol use.

Nasal Cavity and Paranasal Sinus Cancer

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers occur in the areas inside the nose past the nostrils and the air spaces surrounding the nose, skull and eyes.

Cancers of these regions are uncommon, making up only 3 to 5% of all head and neck cancers in the U.S. Some risk factors that increase the risk of these cancers include breathing in substances mostly found in the workplace (e.g., wood dust, textile dust, flour dust, mustard gas, etc.), smoking and HPV, according to the American Cancer Society.

Salivary Gland Cancer

There are several different salivary glands inside the mouth, including the parotid, submandibular, sublingual and minor salivary glands. They are responsible for producing the saliva that helps lubricate the mouth and throat, start digesting food and prevent infections. Both benign (non-cancer) and malignant (cancer) tumors can develop in these glands.

Salivary gland cancers are rare, making up 6 to 8% of all head and neck cancers in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society. The Society also states that there are about 2,000 to 2,500 cases in the U.S. each year. Risk factors for this cancer include old age, radiation exposure and smoking.


UofL Health – Brown Cancer Center has a multidisciplinary head and neck cancer team offering the latest in surgical techniques, radiation therapy, drug therapies and clinical trials. Learn more about the Brown Cancer Center – Head and Neck Cancer multidisciplinary team at UofLHealth.org/Locations/Brown-Cancer-Center/Services/Head-Neck-Cancer.

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Mohamad Babi, M.D.

Mohamad Babi, M.D., completed his bachelor of science in biology and graduated as valedictorian of his class at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala. He then obtained his doctor of medicine degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, and he is now working on completing his residency training in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at University of Louisville. He is planning on practicing general (comprehensive) ear, nose & throat (ENT) after completing his training in 2024. He is married and has one daughter.

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