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What is mouth, head and neck cancer?
Mouth, head and neck cancer describes different cancers that happen in the organs and tissues of the mouth, head or neck.
This includes oral cancers (lips, tongue and base of the tongue, gums, cheeks, roof of your mouth), the back and side walls of your throat, your nose, ear, salivary glands, eye, larynx and thyroid.
Cancer starts when cells grow in an abnormal way. As they grow, the cancer cells can form a tumour, which can affect how the organ or tissue normally works.
Where can mouth, head and neck cancer happen?
There are many areas of the mouth, head and neck where cancer can occur and includes:
- Oral cavity (mouth) cancer
- Laryngeal (voice box) cancer
- Pharyngeal (throat) cancer - including cancer of the nasopharynx, oropharynx and hypopharynx
- Salivary gland cancer. This is rare. Lumps in the salivary gland are common and usually harmless, but get any lumps checked out.
- Nasal and paranasal sinus cancer
- Cancer of the base of tongue and tonsils
- Upper oesphageal (food pipe) cancer
- Cancer of the head and neck lymph nodes - either as primary disease (lymphoma) or as secondary spread of other tumours
- Cancer involving the base of the skull
- Cancer of the ear: This is rare.
- Cancer of the eye: This is very rare.
- Cancer of the thyroid: The thyroid gland is in the front of your neck above your voice box. We have a separate section on thyroid cancer.
Over 1,000 people are diagnosed with these cancers every year in Ireland.
The UK charity CRUK has information on rarer types of head and neck cancers. See our rare cancer page for more.
Describing mouth, head and neck cancers
The different mouth, head and neck cancers are named after the type of cell where the cancer first started to grow. For example:
Squamous cell cancers (carcinomas)
Cancers that start in the squamous cells lining your mouth, nose, throat, tongue or ear. Most head and neck cancers are squamous cell cancers.
Cancers that start in lymphatic system cells and travel to areas of your head and neck.
Cancers that grow in muscle, cartilage and blood vessels around your head and neck.
Cancers that grow in the pigment cells that give colour to your skin and eyes. They can also start in the cells that line your mouth.
The Irish Head and Neck Society has produced a helpful series of videos on the many different healthcare professionals who could be involved in your care if you are diagnosed with a head and neck cancer.
Click the button below to watch on their website.
Medical content reviewed by: James Paul O’Neill FRCSI, MMSc, MD, MBA, ORL-HNS Professor of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery; Dr Eoin Cleere, MB BCh MRCSI (ENT); Shirley Baker, Oncology Clinical Nurse Specialist. October 2022
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