What is Head and Neck Cancer?

There are many variants of of the head and neck cancer, however, many head and neck cancers begin with in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat). It is for this reason these cancers are called squamous cell carcinoma. Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands, but salivary gland cancers are comparatively uncommon. Salivary glands contain many different types of cells that can become cancerous, so there are many different types of salivary gland cancer.  Cancers of the head and neck are usually categorized by the area of the head or neck in which they begin. 

Lateral anatomical view of the head and neck. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonsil

Lateral anatomical view of the head and neck. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonsil

  • Oral cavity: Includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.
  • Pharynx: The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); theoropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).
  • Larynx: The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.
  • Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva.

What causes cancers of the head and neck?

Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most common risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. At least 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone. 

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue . In the United States, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, while the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers related to other causes is falling.


Dentistry is much more than cleanings and fillings.  Dr. Henley and Dr. Kelly believe that a thorough oral cancer screening should be a part of every dental exam.  Also as a commitment to our patients and our community Dr. Henley serves as member of the Head and Neck Tumor Board at Baptist MD Anderson.  The tumor board is a multi-specialty group including radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, ear, nose and throat specialists, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, radiologists, pathologists, dentists, nurses, physical, occupational, speech and swallowing therapists, dietitians and a social workers. The Head and Neck Tumor Board works together using the latest in dentistry and medicine to ensure that patients have the best possible outcomes.   

It is imperative that patients have complete dental examination prior to radiation or surgical treatment of head and neck cancers. Dentists play a critical role in the fabrication of appliances prior to treatment that can make surgical and radiation outcomes better.  Likewise, working with a dentist that understands your diagnosis can aid in planning for future rehabilitation.  

For current patients: A guide for caring for your fluoride trays can be found here