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Head and Neck Cancer

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The Head and Neck Cancer Center is a major provider in the Northeast for patients with early-stage, recurrent, or aggressive head and neck cancers. The nationally recognized team of multidisciplinary specialists who care for these patients collaborate to manage patient care from the first consultation through treatment and follow-up. They combine their expertise in patient care with state-of-the-art treatment options while actively participating in clinical trials to provide tomorrow’s treatments today.

For more information or to refer a patient, call 617.414.4913 or email [email protected]. Patients with a diagnosis or strong suspicion of cancer are seen within 72 hours.

What Is Head and Neck Cancer?

According to the National Cancer Institute, each year, approximately 55,000 Americans are diagnosed with cancers of the head and neck. These malignancies can disfigure the face and neck and affect a person’s speech, eyesight, hearing, ability to swallow, and sense of smell.

Fortunately, many of these cancers are curable if caught at an early stage.

Cancers of the head and neck generally develop in the squamous cells (the outermost layer of cells) that line the moist surfaces inside the mouth, nose, and throat. Cells, the body's basic unit of life, divide to form new cells, and after performing their functions for a while, they die. Cancer cells do not die. Instead, they morph into a new type of cell and divide and produce extra cells that merge into a tumor. If the tumor is benign, it does not metastasize (spread) elsewhere in the body. If the tumor is malignant, it is cancerous and can metastasize to other parts of the body.

Ninety percent of head and neck cancer cases are squamous cell carcinomas: malignant tumors on the surface of the oral cavity, the aerodigestive tract (respiratory and digestive passages), and other organs.

The location of the cancer determines its name and affects its diagnosis and treatment. Sites of head and neck cancer include

  • Salivary glands
  • Nasal cavity and sinuses
  • Upper aerodigestive tract
    • throat (pharynx)
    • voice box (larynx)
    • oral cavity (lips, gums, cheeks, tongue, and roof and floor of the mouth
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Parathyroid cancer
  • Eye cavity (orbital tumors in the bones surrounding the eye)
  • Ear and temporal bone
  • Sarcomas (clusters of malignant tumors) in the neck
  • Tumors of the skull base, including squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, esthesioneuroblastoma, sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma (SNUC), sarcomas, lymphoma, hemangiopericytoma
  • Skin of the head and neck
  • Laryngeal cancer
  • Oropharyngeal cancer

Symptoms of Head and Neck Cancers

Many cancers of the head and neck produce early warning signs. General symptoms include a persistent sore, a lump, swelling, and soreness or pain in the face, neck, mouth, jaw, or throat.

Other symptoms vary with the type and location of the cancer, such as

  • Paralysis or numbness in the face or neck
  • Change in vision, pain, or bulging around the eye socket
  • Hearing loss or ear pain
  • Difficulty or pain when opening the mouth, chewing, swallowing, or speaking
  • Bleeding from the mouth or nose
  • Unusual white or red patches on the mouth lining, gums, tongue, or lips
  • Changes in the voice, such as hoarseness
  • Weight loss
  • Looseness of upper teeth
  • Dentures that no longer fit properly or comfortably

If any of these symptoms persist for more than two weeks, patients are advised to see their physician.

Causes of Head and Neck Cancers

Most head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, and smokeless tobaccos, such as chewing tobacco and snuff. Using both tobacco and alcohol puts an individual at greater risk than either of these habits alone. A subset of head and neck cancers may be caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Other factors that may increase risk are

  • Age: Most head and neck cancers are found in people ages 50 and older.
  • Gender: Men are at greater risk to develop head and neck cancers than women.
  • Race: African Americans have a higher rate of head and neck cancer than do Caucasians, Hispanics, or Asians.
  • Radiation to the head and neck from previous radiation therapy
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Exposure to airborne particles of asbestos, especially in the workplace
  • Excessive sun exposure


National Cancer Institute. 2013. “What are the side effects of treatment?” In “Head and Neck Cancers.” Last reviewed February 1, 2013. Accessed June 14, 2015.

Head and Neck at BMC


830 Harrison Ave
Boston, MA 02118
Moakley Building, 1st Floor


Monday-Friday 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM