Understanding Head And Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is a term used to describe a number of different malignant tumors that develop in or around the throat, larynx (voice box), nose, sinuses and mouth. Head and neck cancer (HNC) is the seventh most common type of cancer in the world and constitute 5% of the entire cancers worldwide. About 90% of all head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinomas (HNSCC). The impact of this disease on patients' quality of life may be substantial as it can be physically disfiguring - changing the face that patients present to the world and may affect the ability to swallow, eat and talk.


In Switzerland about 1400 new cases of head and neck cancer are diagnosed each year, about 500 die of it.


Worldwide an estimated 887,000 new cases of head and neck cancer were diagnosed in 2018, more than 453,000 died of it.


Head and neck cancer is more common among men than women. The incidence of head and neck cancer increases with age. Although most patients are between age 50 to 70 years, the incidence in younger patients is increasing, related to cancers (primarily oropharyngeal) caused by human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.

Areas of the head and neck where cancers begin

  1. Paranasal sinuses & nasal cavity
  2. Oral cavity
  3. Salivary glands
  4. Larynx (voice box)
  5. Pharynx (cavity behind nose & mouth, connecting both to esophagus)

There are two factors that greatly increase the risk of head and neck cancer:

Tobacco Use

85 percent of head and neck cancer cases are linked to tobacco use, and secondhand smoke may also increase a person's risk.


Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption.

Other risk factors include:

  • Prolonged sun exposure
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Marijuana use
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Poor oral/dental hygiene
  • Environmental/occupational inhalants
  • Poor nutrition
  • Gastroesophageal and laryngopharyngeal reflux diseases
  • Weakened immune system


More than 70% of squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck are estimated to be avoidable by lifestyle changes, particularly by effective reduction of exposure to well-known risk factors such as tobacco smoking and alcohol drinking.

There is no proven way to completely prevent head and neck cancer, but the risk could potentially be lowered by:

  • Stopping the use of all tobacco products
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Using sunscreen regularly, including lip balm with an adequate sun protection factor
  • Reducing the risk of HPV infection by receiving the HPV vaccine or by limiting the number of sexual partners, since having many partners increases the risk of HPV infection.
  • Maintaining proper care of dentures


an estimated 887,000 new cases of head and neck cancer were diagnosed in 2018.

CH-NON-00474, 03/2020