144 US Route 1, Scarborough, ME 04074
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American Academy of Otolaryngology: Head and Neck

Head and Neck Cancers

Each year, more than 55,000 Americans will develop head and neck cancer. Benjamin Liess, MD, FACS, is here to diagnose and treat these cancers.

We offer care for patients with all types and stages of head and neck tumors (cancerous and noncancerous).

We help you through all stages of cancer treatment – diagnosis, tumor staging, treatment and long-term follow-up care. We help to coordinate treatments with other local specialists to provide you the highest quality of service.

We will also consider nonsurgical treatment options, including simultaneous radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

Early Warning Signs

Early warning signs of head and neck cancer include:

  • Lump in the neck
  • Change in the voice
  • A growth in the mouth
  • Swallowing problems
  • Changes in the skin
  • Persistent earache

When found early, many cancers in the head and neck can be cured with few side effects. Cure rates for some cancers would be significantly improved if people would seek medical advice as soon as possible. If you detect warning signs of head and neck cancer, see Dr. Liess immediately.

Cancers of the Head and Neck

Cancers of the head and neck usually begin in the squamous cells that line the surfaces inside the head and neck (for example, inside the mouth, the nose, and the throat). Head and neck cancers can also begin in the salivary glands but are relatively uncommon.

Cancers of the head and neck are categorized by the area of the head or neck where they begin. These areas are described below.

  • Oral cavity: Includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the lining inside the cheeks and lips, the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area of the gum behind the wisdom teeth.
  • Pharynx: The pharynx (throat) is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus. It has three parts: the nasopharynx (the upper part of the pharynx, behind the nose); the oropharynx (the middle part of the pharynx, including the soft palate [the back of the mouth], the base of the tongue, and the tonsils); the hypopharynx (the lower part of the pharynx).
  • Larynx: The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx that prevents food from entering the lungs
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity: The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.
  • Salivary glands: The major salivary glands are in the floor of the mouth and near the jawbone. The salivary glands produce saliva.


Alcohol and tobacco use (including smokeless tobacco, sometimes called “chewing tobacco” or “snuff”) are the two most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, especially cancers of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. Nearly 75 percent of head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol use. People who use both products are at higher risk of developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

Infection with cancer-causing types of human papillomavirus (HPV), especially HPV-16, is a risk factor for some types of head and neck cancers, particularly oropharyngeal cancers that involve the tonsils or the base of the tongue. In the United States, the incidence of oropharyngeal cancers caused by HPV infection is increasing, while the rate of oropharyngeal cancers related to other causes is falling.

Other risk factors for cancers of the head and neck include the following:

  • Paan (betel quid). Immigrants from Southeast Asia who use paan in the mouth should know this is strongly associated with an increased risk of oral cancer.
  • Maté. Consumption of maté, a tea-like beverage consumed by South Americans, has been associated with an increased risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and larynx.
  • Preserved or salted foods. Consumption of certain preserved or salted foods during childhood is a risk factor for nasopharyngeal cancer.
  • Oral health. Poor oral hygiene and missing teeth may be low-risk factors for cancers of the oral cavity.
  • Occupational exposure. Certain industrial exposures, including exposures to asbestos and synthetic fibers, have been associated with cancer of the larynx but remains controversial. People working in certain jobs in the construction, metal, textile, ceramic, logging, and food industries may have an increased risk of cancer of the larynx. Industrial exposure to wood or nickel dust or formaldehyde is a risk factor for cancers of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity.
  • Radiation exposure. Radiation to the head and neck, for noncancerous conditions or cancer treatment, is a risk factor for the development of new cancer in the head and neck.
  • Epstein-Barr virus infection. Infection with the Epstein-Barr virus is a risk factor for salivary gland and nasopharyngeal cancer.

© Benjamin Liess, MD, FACS