Head and Neck Cancers

Premier Health providers answer frequently asked questions about the diagnosis and treatment of common head and neck cancers.

What are the most common types of head and neck cancer?

Probably about 90 to 95 percent of all head and neck cancers are squamous cell cancers. They usually start at a primary site, somewhere in the upper aerodigestive tract. This includes anywhere from the lips, to the back of the throat, to the upper esophagus, to the trachea. We most commonly see cancer in the tongue, the floor of the mouth, the cheeks, the gums, the tonsils, the base or back of the tongue where it inserts into the root of the tongue. Then it also includes the larynx and the vocal cords, which we call the glottis. Just above that is the supraglottis and then the back of the throat, right near where the upper esophagus starts.

Then we also see cancer in the nasopharynx, which is in the back of the nose, and we sometimes see cancers covering the nasal passageways. Squamous cell cancer is the most common in the nasal passageways. There's also cutaneous head and neck cancer, which starts out on the skin of the scalp or temple as squamous cell cancers, or basal cell cancers, or melanoma. Squamous cell and basal cell make up the vast majority of these cancers, though we're seeing more and more melanomas.

We more rarely see cancer in the salivary glands, as well as the glands underneath the jaw. Then there are thousands of minor salivary glands from the lips to the back of the throat, and even though they're rarer, we see a high diversity in pathology with those.

Thyroid cancer is another head and neck type of cancer which can also metastasize (spread) to the lymph nodes and the neck area.

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Source: Stewart I. Adam, III, MD, Premier ENT Associates