• What is it?
  • Staging
  • Symptoms
  • Treatment
  • Causes
  • Prognosis
  • Screening
  • Prevention
  • Diagnosis

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers occur inside the sinuses, nose, mouth and salivary glands down through the throat. Although these cancers are different, they are treated similarly, so are considered as a group.

In 2013, 3362 head and neck cancers were diagnosed in Australia. These figures include cancers of the tongue, gum, mouth, salivary glands, tonsils, pharynx, nasal cavity and larynx, but not cancers of the lip.

In 2014, there were 1038 deaths in Australia due to head and neck cancers.

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Symptoms depend on the site, however you may have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • hoarse voice
  • difficulty swallowing
  • bad breath.

Causes of head and neck cancer

Alcohol and tobacco consumption are the biggest risk factors for head and neck cancers with the exception of salivary gland cancer. Some head and neck cancers are related to human papilloma virus infection. Other risk factors include:

  • age – head and neck cancer is more common in people over 40 years old
  • sex – men are three times more likely than women in Australia to develop head and neck cancer
  • oral hygiene – poor oral health including gum disease have been linked to cancers of the oral cavity
  • nutrition.

Diagnosis for head and neck cancer

Diagnosis is by a biopsy obtained using an endoscope, needle or surgically.

Treatment for head and neck cancer

The definitive treatment for local disease is surgery to the primary lump and draining the lymph glands. Full dose radiotherapy may be used in sites where functions such as speech can be preserved. Radiotherapy can be given in sequence with chemotherapy (commonly cisplatin, 5 fluorouracil or the taxanes) for more advanced cancer and both can be used for symptom relief with widespread disease.


Based on the results of the tests, your doctor will tell you the stage of the cancer. The extent of the tumour is defined by the size of the lump and whether there is spread to lymph nodes or further to the lungs or bones. CT, MRI, bone and PET scans are used. Visual examination using an endoscope may be required.

Treatment team

If you are diagnosed with a head or neck cancer, your treatment team may consist of a number of health professionals including:

  • a GP who will arrange for initial tests and may refer to other specialists
  • an ear, nose and throat specialist
  • a head and neck surgeon
  • an oral surgeon who specialises in surgery to the face
  • a medical oncologist who coordinates chemotherapy
  • a radiation oncologist who coordinates radiotherapy
  • a dentist
  • a cancer nurse
  • other health professionals such as speech pathologist, occupational therapist, counsellor and dietitian.

Palliative care

In some cases of head and neck cancer, your medical team may talk to you about palliative care. Palliative care aims to improve your quality of life by alleviating symptoms of cancer.

As well as slowing the spread of head and neck cancer, palliative treatment can relieve pain and help manage other symptoms. Treatment may include radiotherapy, chemotherapy or other drug therapies.

Screening for head and neck cancer

There is currently no screening for head and neck cancer available in Australia.

White plaques or patches in the mouth (leukoplakia) may precede the development of the cancer.

Prognosis for head and neck cancer

Prognosis means the expected outcome of a disease. An individual’s prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis.

Preventing head and neck cancer

The risk of head and neck cancers can be reduced by not smoking (or quitting) and reducing alcohol consumption.


Understanding Head and Neck Cancers, Cancer Council Australia, © 2015. Last medical review of source booklet: June 2015.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2017. Cancer in Australia 2017. Cancer series no. 101. Cat. no. CAN 100. Canberra: AIHW.