Head and Neck Cancer | Cancer


Head and Neck Cancer

UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center provides the full range of multispecialty care for head and neck cancers. Our skilled teams provide guidance, support and expertise at every stage of your journey, from diagnosis through treatment.

Medically reviewed by Andrew Birkeland, M.D. on June 09, 2023.

Woman getting screened for cancer with two health care providers talking to her and preparing the machine

Coordinated Care for Head and Neck Cancers

At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, experts across multiple specialties work together to plan your care. You receive the coordinated input of oncologists, otolaryngologists, head and neck surgeons, plastic and reconstructive surgeons and neurosurgeons.

We specialize in the latest minimally invasive treatments and reconstructive surgeries for head and neck cancers. We also participate in clinical trials to investigate promising new therapies. These studies mean you may gain access to treatments not widely available.


What Is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer develops in your mouth, lips, throat, tongue, tonsils, sinuses, nose, voice box or salivary glands. The most common type is squamous cell carcinoma. It forms in the moist mucous tissues (membranes) that line body openings like those in your mouth and throat.

We care for the full range of head and neck cancers, including:

  • Laryngeal and hypopharyngeal cancer (voice box and bottom part of throat)
  • Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancer (spaces in the bones around the nose)
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer (top part of throat)
  • Oral and oropharyngeal cancer (mouth and back of throat)
  • Salivary gland cancer (organs that produce spit)
  • Skin cancers of the head and neck
  • Thyroid cancer (gland that produces hormones)

Head and Neck Cancer Symptoms

Symptoms vary based on the type and location of your cancer. Many signs of mouth, throat or voice box cancer may not seem serious at first. Talk to your physician as soon as you notice anything unusual. Early diagnosis of head and neck cancer greatly improves your outcome.

Common Symptoms

General symptoms of head or neck cancer may include:

  • Painful lesions in the mouth or throat
  • Hoarseness or difficulty breathing
  • Lump in your mouth, neck or throat
  • Pain or difficulty when swallowing or moving your jaw
  • Persistent ear pain, sore throat, cough or spitting up blood
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • White, red or discolored patches or sores in your mouth or throat

Emergency Symptoms

Seek immediate medication attention if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing or coughing up blood
  • Double vision
  • Numbness in your head, neck or limbs
  • Severe jaw or face pain
  • Sudden choking, gagging or violent coughing

Head and Neck Cancer Causes and Risk Factors

Like other cancers, head and neck cancer occurs due to cells multiplying uncontrollably. The cells form tumors that can spread to other areas of your body and affect vital functions.

Changes (mutations) to certain genes that regulate how quickly cells grow and divide can lead to cancer. Most genetic changes are acquired, meaning they occur during your lifetime, while others occur before birth (congenital). Some genetic abnormalities are passed down through families (inherited).

Not all people with abnormal genes develop head and neck cancer, but they increase your risk of disease. Other factors also increase your risk, including:


Between 70% and 80% of head and neck cancers occur due to tobacco use or exposure. Tobacco exposure includes smoking, secondhand smoke or smokeless tobacco, such as chewing tobacco and snuff.


Heavy alcohol consumption (more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women) increases your risk of cancer in your mouth, throat and voice box.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that changes cells. Having the virus increases your chances of cancer in the mouth and throat. HPV is the cause of about 70% of all oropharyngeal cancers in the U.S.

Sun Exposure

Sun exposure increases your chances of lip cancer. It can also cause skin cancer on your head, neck and face.

Other Risk Factors

Other factors that increase your risk of developing head and neck cancer include radiation or toxin exposure, if you have acid reflux or poor dental hygiene.


Diagnosing Head and Neck Cancers

The first step toward effective head and neck cancer treatment is an accurate diagnosis. At UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, we also stage the cancer to find out if and where it has spread (metastasized).

Your physician begins with a complete medical history and physical exam. We check your neck, throat, mouth, nose, lymph nodes and other areas for bumps, sores or discolored areas. You may also have blood and urine tests so your physician can rule out other health conditions, such as a virus or infection.

Tests for head and neck cancer may include:

Endoscopy: Endoscopy is the most common test for head and neck cancers. Your physician inserts an endoscope (thin, flexible tube with a light and lens) into your nose and down your throat. They use this tool to examine your nose, throat and voice box. You receive general anesthesia during an endoscopy, so you rest comfortably.

Other imaging exams: We may do an X-ray, ultrasound, MRI, CT scan or PET scan. These noninvasive tests show us the size, shape and location of tumors. We also use imaging scans to find out if cancer has spread outside your head or neck to other parts of your body.

Biopsy: A biopsy is the only way to confirm a diagnosis of head and neck cancer. We take a small tissue sample from your primary tumor location or suspicious neck lymph node. A pathologist examines the sample under a microscope to look for cancer. We may do a surgical or fine needle biopsy (using a needle with syringe to get cells) based on the tumor's location.


Head and Neck Cancer Treatments at UC Davis Health

Head and neck cancer treatment can change your appearance and the way you talk, eat and breathe. Our goal is to treat your cancer fully, while helping you look and feel as much like yourself as possible.

Together with you, your care team selects the most appropriate treatment for your needs. We’re always here to help you understand what to expect before, during and after treatment.

Our state-of-the-art treatments for head and neck cancers include:


Surgery is a common treatment for head and neck cancers. Head and neck surgeons, neurosurgeons and plastic and reconstructive surgeons work together to plan your care.

The type of surgery you have depends on the location of your cancer, and how advanced it is. For early-stage cancers, we may be able to remove the tumor and some of the healthy tissue around it (local excision). Major tumors may require removal of large areas of tissue. Whenever possible, we use the least invasive techniques.

Transoral Robotic Surgery (TORS)

Our skilled surgical team specializes in transoral robotic surgery (TORS) for head and neck cancers. UC Davis Medical Center was the first hospital in Northern California to offer this minimally invasive, robot-assisted procedure. Using TORS, our skilled team can remove tumors of the throat, voice box and oral cavity entirely through your mouth. This approach helps preserve your ability to speak, swallow and eat. It also doesn’t create visible scars.

Microvascular Surgery

We also offer complex microvascular surgery to rebuild areas of the face or neck affected by cancer treatment. Head and neck reconstructive surgeons take tissue containing skin, muscle, bone or blood vessels from other parts of your body. They reattach the tissue and blood vessels to the damaged area, improving appearance and function.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to destroy tumors. It may be the only treatment you need for small, early-stage tumors. It’s also a treatment option for people who can’t have surgery.


Chemotherapy uses drugs to destroy cancer cells. You may receive chemotherapy with radiation as treatment alone for some cancers, or after surgery for head and neck cancer. Quitting smoking before any therapy and other treatments is an important part of ensuring the best possible outcome.


Immunotherapy uses your body’s immune system to fight cancer. UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center is at the forefront of investigating breakthrough immunotherapies for head and neck cancers.


Preventing Head and Neck Cancer

You can't prevent head and neck cancer. But you can lower your risk by avoiding tobacco and alcohol and using sunscreen.

The HPV vaccine protects you from some of the viruses that can cause mouth and throat cancers. The vaccine doesn’t cure an existing HPV infection. The vaccine is recommended for all people aged 45 and younger. Talk to your healthcare provider or your child’s pediatrician about the HPV vaccine.

"Head and Neck Cancer: Risk Factors and Prevention," American Society of Clinical Oncology, https://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/head-and-neck-cancer/risk-factors-and-prevention

"HPV and Oropharyngeal Cancer," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/basic_info/hpv_oropharyngeal.htm

How many cases?

562K+People diagnosed with head and neck cancer worldwide in 2020

Annual Deaths

277K+People died from head and neck cancer worldwide in 2020

Source: American Society of Clinical Oncology: Head and Neck Cancer Statistics

Request an Appointment

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