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What are the Different Types of Head and Neck Cancer?

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  • Written By: P.S. Jones
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2016
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Head and neck cancer is any cancer that arises in the head or neck region, including the nasal cavity and larynx, as well as the mouth and throat. Head and neck cancers are sometimes called silent killers because they often go undetected until the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes in the neck. If caught early, most head and neck cancer is highly treatable with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. These types of cancers are usually associated with environmental or lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking or exposure to ultra violet (UV) light. These cancers are classified by where they originate in the head or neck region, such as the mouth, throat, or larynx.

Oral cancer is a head and neck cancer that originates in the mouth. It generally begins as a small lesion in the oral cavity and spreads quickly, making its way to the nasal cavity or sinus region. Under the oral cancer category, there are several types of cancer. Adenocarcinoma is found in the salivary glands, while lymphoma occurs in the lymph tissues. Most oral cancer is a squamous cell carcinoma on the lips or tissues lining the mouth, resembling skin cancer.

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The head and neck cancer that occurs in the throat can be categorized into three types. Nasopharyngeal cancer occurs where the nasal cavities and upper part of the throat connect. Oropharyngeal cancer occurs in the middle of the throat where base of the tongue and the tonsils are. Hypopharyngeal cancer occurs at the bottom of the throat, near the area the pyriform sinuses are located, and tend to be diagnosed in the late stages of the cancer. This is why hypopharyngeal cancers have the worst survival rate of any cancer in the throat.

Laryngeal cancer is a head and neck cancer that begins in the larynx. Glottic cancer occurs on the actual vocal folds. Supraglottic cancer happens in the tissue right above the vocal folds, while subglottic cancer occurs in the tissue below the vocal folds. Laryngeal cancer has been linked strongly to smoking. Most laryngeal cancers are glottic cancer, with supraglottic cancers the next common type and the subglottic cancer the most infrequent.

The trachea is the airway through which air passes through the human body. Cancer in the trachea is not necessarily a head and throat cancer. While it may be classified as such because its biology is so similar to the other head and neck cancers, trachea cancer is actually considered a lung cancer.

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