Head and Neck Cancer

Cancer can occur in any of the tissues or organs in the head and neck. There are over 30 different places that cancer can develop in the head and neck area.


Cancers of the oral cavity

The oral cavity includes the lips and the mouth (see diagram below). Cancer can occur in the tongue, the roof of the mouth (the hard palate), the gums, the floor of the mouth (under the tongue) and the inner lining of the lips and cheeks (sometimes referred to as the buccal mucosa).

The oral cavity

Oropharyngeal cancer

This develops in the oropharynx, the part of the throat that is directly behind the mouth. It includes the soft part of the roof of the mouth (the soft palate), the base of the tongue (the part you can’t see), the side walls of the throat (where the tonsils are found) and the back wall of the throat (also called the posterior pharyngeal wall).

Cancer of the nose

Cancers can develop in the skin of the nostril and the lining of the nose. The highest part of the throat, which lies behind the nose, is called the nasopharynx (see diagram below). Cancers that occur here are known as nasopharyngeal cancer.

Alongside the nose, in the bones of the face, lie air spaces known as the sinuses (or paranasal sinuses). Cancers can develop in the linings of these areas too.

Diagram showing a cross-section of the head

Cancer of the ear

Cancers of the ear are rare. Most develop in the skin of the ear. They can develop in the structures deep inside the ear, but these cancers are very rare.

Cancer of the eye

Cancers can develop in the skin of the eyelids. Cancers are very unusual in the eye itself. When they do occur, they are usually a type called ocular melanoma. Occasionally a cancer of the white blood cells, called lymphoma, can develop behind the eye. In very rare cases, cancer may spread into the eye from a cancer elsewhere in the body: for example, the breast.