Types of Head and Neck Cancers

Head and neck cancers are cancers that start in the head or neck regions.

Patients are usually not told they have a ‘Head and Neck cancer’, they are usually told they have cancer in the particular area affected.

The most common areas include:

Cancers affecting areas such as the brain, eyes, wind-pipe (trachea), and oesophagus do not fall into the Head and Neck cancer classification.

If you or someone you know has recently been diagnosed with a Head and Neck cancer or if you have been referred to a specialist for a diagnosis you might find our What To Expect guides helpful.  These are written by patients for patients.  You should use these as guides only and always ask your medical team for specific information as every person’s cancer and cancer experience will be different.

There are more than 17,000 new cases of head and neck cancer diagnosed in the UK each year and the numbers are expected to increase by 30% over the next 10 years.

Each year of the 17,000* new cancer diagnoses:

  • 5,500+ are in the upper, middle and lower throat areas
  • 3,500+ are in the mouth/ oral cavity,
  • 2,000 are in the larynx (voice box),
  • 600+ are in the major salivary glands,
  • 600+ are in the nose cavity and sinuses.
  • 4,000 are in the thyroid gland,
  • A smaller number of cancers found in the lymph nodes with no known site of origin.
*(Based on Oracle Head & Neck Cancer UK most recent data)

In addition to different locations within the Head and Neck areas that cancer can present there are also many different cancer cell types.  You should speak to your medical team or a Head and Neck cancer Oncologist to learn more about a specific type of cancer that you want to know more about.

Which treatment you'll have for your Head and Neck cancer depends on many factors. These might include the location of the cancer, its size and the type of cells involved. Your healthcare team also considers your overall health. Treatment options might include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and others.

Most head and neck cancers (apart from those in the thyroid and salivary glands) begin in squamous cells.

Some types of squamous cells can be found on the outer layer of the skin, while others line the inside of the nose, mouth and throat. Cancers that begin in the squamous cells are called squamous cell carcinomas. Cancers can begin in other kinds of cells in the head and neck area, though these are less common.  A brief summary of the most common cancer cell types is below:

Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC):  The majority of Head and Neck cancers (aside from those in the thyroid and salivary glands) are squamous cell carcinomas. About 9 out of 10 head and neck cancers (90%) start in squamous cells.

The most common types of Salivary Gland cancers are:

  • Mucoepidermoid carcinomas. Mostly common in the parotid glands.
  • Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC): a rare type of cancer that usually develops in the salivary glands or other areas of the head and neck. Sometimes it can form in other parts of the body, including your skin, breast tissue, cervix or prostate gland.

The most common types of Thyroid cancer are Papillary and Follicular Cancer.