Types of head and neck cancer

The majority of head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas. This type of cancer begins in the flat squamous cells that make up the thin layer of tissue on the surface of the structures in the head and neck. Directly beneath this lining, which is called the epithelium, some areas of the head and neck have a layer of moist tissue, called the mucosa. If a cancer is only found in the squamous layer of cells, it is called carcinoma in situ. If the cancer has grown beyond this cell layer and moved into the deeper tissue, then it is called invasive squamous cell carcinoma. If doctors cannot identify where the cancer began, it is called a cancer of unknown primary.

If a head and neck cancer starts in the salivary glands, the tumour will usually be classified as an adenocarcinoma, adenoid cystic carcinoma, or mucoepidermoid carcinoma.

More recently head and neck cancers have been attributed to the HPV virus and it is estimated that up to 70% of all head and neck cancers are now "HPV positive".  These cancers generally affect the tonsils, base of tongue and throat. Historically head and neck cancer was associated with patients of retirement age who had a history of alcohol and smoking but HPV head and neck cancers are affecting much younger patients and the risk factors include oral sex.

Cancers affecting areas such as the eyes, thyroid, oesophagus and brain do not always fall into the head and neck cancer classification.

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The main types of head and neck cancer

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In this section

Every day in the UK, 33 people are diagnosed with head and neck cancer.

Head and neck cancer is now the sixth most common cancer nationally and globally. (2014).

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