Types of Head & Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer usually arises in the cells that line the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat. Each type is classified by its location.

Experts at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center—including otolaryngologists, head and neck surgeons, reconstructive surgeons, plastic surgeons, oral-maxillofacial surgeons, endocrine surgeons, radiation and medical oncologists, and speech and swallowing therapists—manage all types of head and neck cancer.

Mouth Cancer

Oral cancer develops in the mouth and may include the lining of the cheeks, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the palate—the roof of the mouth—the lips, and the floor of the mouth, which is located under the tongue.

Symptoms may include a lump or a sore on the lip or in the mouth that does not heal; numbness, pain, or bleeding in the mouth; trouble moving the tongue or swallowing; a sore throat; recent changes in how dentures fit; hoarseness; discomfort when opening the mouth; or a lump on the neck, which may be a cancerous lymph node.

Cancer can develop in the oropharynx, which is associated with breathing and swallowing. Oropharyngeal cancer can develop on the back of the tongue, the tonsils, the palate, and the sides and back of the throat.  Symptoms can include difficulty swallowing, persistent pain in the ear, and a lump on the throat or neck.

Throat Cancer

Laryngeal and pharyngeal cancers are cancers that occur in different parts of the throat. Laryngeal cancer arises in the larynx, also called the vocal cords or voice box. The larynx, which is located in the front of the throat, enables you to speak and helps with breathing and swallowing.

Symptoms of laryngeal cancer include hoarseness, high-pitched sounds while breathing, a cough, difficulty swallowing, a sore throat, neck pain, or a mass on the side of the neck, which is typically a swollen lymph node. The cancer often spreads to the lymph nodes and may be the first noticeable sign of laryngeal cancer.

The larynx is located adjacent to the pharynx, the passageway in the back of the throat that leads from the nasal cavity—the empty space above and behind the nose that moistens, filters, and heats air—to the esophagus, the muscular tube that carries food to the stomach. The pharynx helps move air from the nasal cavity to the windpipe and moves food from the mouth to the esophagus.

Symptoms of pharyngeal cancer may be similar to those of laryngeal cancer. They can include persistent soreness on one side of the throat, a lump on the neck, persistent ear pain, and difficulty swallowing.

Cancer can also develop in the nasopharynx, the top part of the throat that carries air from the nasal cavity to the throat. Nasopharyngeal cancer can cause a stuffy nose, nosebleeds, and hearing loss. Most often, it is first noted by swollen lymph nodes in the neck.

Another form of throat cancer, hypopharyngeal cancer develops in the hypopharynx, the bottom part of the throat that moves food and liquid from the throat into the esophagus. It can cause difficulty swallowing.

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer affects the esophagus, the muscular tube that carries food to the stomach. There are two main types of esophageal cancer: squamous cell carcinoma, which develops in the flat cells that line the esophagus, and adenocarcinoma, which occurs in gland cells, which secrete and produce fluid.

Symptoms may include difficulty swallowing, reflux, vomiting blood, dark stool, and weight loss.

Sinonasal Cancer

Sinonasal cancer develops in the nasal cavity and the sinuses, the air-filled cavities on both sides of the nose that moisten and filter air before it enters the windpipe, which carries air to the lungs.

Symptoms may include recurrent nosebleeds, headaches, unexplained nasal congestion, a noticeable lump in the nose that can interfere with breathing, eye tearing, and ear congestion.

Salivary Gland Cancer

Tumors can appear on the salivary glands, which produce saliva to help break down food for swallowing and digestion. Some of these tumors are cancerous.

These glands include the parotid gland, the largest salivary gland, which is located on the side of the face in front of the ear; the submandibular glands, which are located in the upper neck below the jaw; and microscopic glands in the oral cavity, mouth, or throat.

Symptoms of salivary gland cancer can include a lump near the jaw muscle, weakness in the face, and swelling or pain in the salivary glands.

Thyroid Cancer

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck. It produces hormones that regulate metabolism, or the conversion of food to energy in the body.

Specialists at NYU Langone’s Thyroid Unit work with experts at the Head and Neck Center to manage thyroid cancer. The most common type is papillary carcinoma, which grows slowly but may spread to lymph nodes.

Rarely, thyroid cancers cause symptoms, including neck swelling, swallowing problems, pain, shortness of breath, and voice changes.