About mouth, head and neck cancer

What is mouth, head and neck cancer?

Cancer can develop in any tissue or organ in the mouth, head or neck. As they grow, the cancer cells can affect how the organ or tissue normally works. The areas where mouth, head and neck cancers develop are:

Oral cancers can occur in the lips, the tongue, the gums, the cheeks, the roof of the mouth (the hard palate) and the floor of the mouth (under the tongue).

Oropharyngeal cancers can occur in the soft part of the roof of the mouth, the back and side walls of the throat and the base of the tongue.

Cancer of the nose can occur in the nasopharynx (the area where the throat joins the nose), the nostril or the lining of the nose. Cancer can also develop in the bones around the face or in the sinuses.

Cancer of the ear can occur in and around the ear but is very unusual.

Cancer of the eye can occur but is very rare.


Mouth, head and neck cancers cover a wide range of different diseases. They are named after the type of cell where the cancer first starts to grow.

  • Squamous cell: cancers start in the lining of the mouth, nose, throat, tongue or ear.
  • Lymphomas: begin in the cells of the lymphatic system and travel to areas of the mouth, head and neck. The lymphatic system is part of the body´s natural defence system. It contains lymph glands or nodes that are found around the body, including the neck. They contain white blood cells that become swollen during an infection. If the swelling does not go away, it may be due to cancer.
  • Sarcomas: are tumours of soft tissue and occur in the muscle, cartilage and blood vessels around the mouth, head and neck.
  • Melanomas: are cancer cells that start to grow in the cells that give colour to the skin and eye.

Most mouth, head and neck cancers are squamous cell cancers.

For more information on mouth, head and neck cancers, please see our booklet Understanding Cancers of the Head, Neck and Mouth.

Note: Thyroid cancer, eye cancer and cancer of the larynx are sometimes referred to as mouth, head and neck cancers. However, they are not discussed here. For more information, see Understanding Cancer of the Larynx booklet or the web information on Eye Cancer or Thyroid Cancer.

How common is mouth, head and neck cancer?

In general mouth, head and neck cancers are not common. In 2017 it was estimated that there are around 500 cases of mouth, head and neck cancers diagnosed in Ireland each year.

Date Last Revised: 
Wednesday, March 18, 2015