Head and neck cancers

Each year in the U.S. around 40,000 people are diagnosed with a type of head and neck cancer, such as oral cancer and throat cancer.

Five-year head and neck cancer survival rates

Types of head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancers include cancer that begin in the oral cavity, salivary glands, paranasal sinuses, nasal cavity, pharynx or larynx. As one of our specialties, we can provide the treatment you need for life beyond cancer.

Why do they occur?

Head and neck cancers occur when cells in parts of that area undergo a gene mutation and grow out of control. Together, these cells form a tumor that may spread to other parts of the body. The most common type of tumor in the head and neck area is a squamous cell carcinoma, as these cancers start in the squamous cells that line all parts of the nose, mouth, and throat. We don’t know the exact cause of head and neck cancers, or what causes these genetic mutations to occur, but research has identified several risk factors.

Whether you’ve already been diagnosed and have received a referral, or you’re concerned about some possible symptoms, make an appointment today. Our multidisciplinary team of head and neck cancer specialists are ready to help.




There are many types of head and neck cancers, but these are the most common:

  • Laryngeal cancer. Starts in the voice box.
  • Hypopharyngeal cancer. Starts in the lower part of the throat beside and behind the voice box.
  • Nasal cavity cancer. Starts in the opening behind the nose.
  • Nasopharyngeal cancer. Starts in the upper part of the throat behind the nose.
  • Oral cavity cancer. Starts in the mouth.
  • Oropharyngeal cancer. Starts in back of the mouth or the throat, and may include the salivary glands.
  • Paranasal sinus cancer. Starts in the openings around or near the nose, called sinuses.

Man smiling in white shirt

If you experience any of these common symptoms, come see us right away:

  • A lump or thickening in the cheek
  • A lump or mass in the neck
  • A sore in the mouth that doesn’t heal—the most common symptom
  • A sore throat, or a feeling that something is caught in the throat that doesn’t go away
  • A white or red patch on the gums, tongue, tonsil, or lining of the mouth
  • Constant bad breath
  • Loosening of the teeth, or pain around the teeth or jaw
  • Pain in the mouth
  • Numbness of the tongue or other area of the mouth
  • Swelling of the jaw that causes dentures to fit poorly or become uncomfortable
  • Trouble chewing or swallowing
  • Trouble moving the jaw or tongue
  • Voice changes
  • Weight loss

What is the survival rate for head and neck cancer?

The 5-year relative survival rates for oral and throat cancers, all stages combined (based on people diagnosed with oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer between 2008 and 2014)

  • Floor of the mouth: 53%
  • Gum: 59%
  • Lip: 88%
  • Throat and tonsil: 69%
  • Tongue: 66%

Source: American Cancer Society

grandfather with grandson on lap eating an orange

How can you reduce the risk of head and neck cancer?

While we don’t know the exact cause of head and neck cancers, we have identified factors that can increase your risk. If you avoid these factors, you can significantly lower your risk:

  • Limit smoking and drinking. Tobacco and alcohol are among the most important risk factors for these cancers. Not starting to smoke is the best way to limit the risk of getting these cancers. Limit how much alcohol you drink, or don’t drink at all.
  • Avoid human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. The risk of infection of the mouth and throat is increased in those who have oral sex and multiple sex partners.
  • Limit exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. An important and avoidable risk factor for cancer of the lips, as well as for skin cancer.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Wear properly fitted dentures.
  • Treat pre-cancerous growths. Areas of leukoplakia or erythroplakia in the mouth sometimes progress to cancer. Doctors often remove these areas, especially if a biopsy shows they contain areas of abnormal growth when looked at under a microscope.

Is head and neck cancer curable?

Yes, when detected in the early stages and when treated properly.

At UCHealth, a caring team of doctors and support professionals from many fields—including our elite, Magnet-designated nursing staff—work together to develop the best plan of care for you. They stay with you from your initial appointment through treatment and aftercare. Your expert medical team members may include:

  • Medical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Head and neck cancer surgeons
  • Pathologists
  • Radiologists
  • Oncology nurses
  • Nutritionists
  • Social workers
  • Speech-language pathologists

surgeons pointing out to something

An expanded team of specialists. You can also find treatment at UCHealth for cancers that appear in lymph nodes of the upper neck, and we collaborate with our colleagues on the Head and Neck Tumor Board to review specific situations and develop the best next steps for people dealing with advanced thyroid cancer when standard treatments aren’t delivering desired results. As someone experiencing an advanced or rare thyroid cancer, you’re evaluated jointly by our medical oncologists, endocrinologists, thyroid cancer surgeons, and radiation oncologists who work together to create a specialized care plan that fits your specific needs. In addition, you may be able to participate in clinical research studies of new chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

provider explaining a treatment

Clinical trials

Your medical team may also recommend participation in a clinical trial. We conduct hundreds of these trials of new treatments or drugs through our UCHealth/University of Colorado Cancer Center.

Participation in a clinical trial may provide those who qualify with access to drugs and vaccines years before they are widely available.

Learn more