About Head and Neck Cancer

Dr. Mark Varvares with a patient


What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancers are a group of cancers that affect the tissues and organs of the head and neck. What most people do not realize is how common head and neck cancer is in the United States. While traditional risk factors such as alcohol consumption and tobacco use have long been associated with these cancers, the current epidemic of human-papilloma virus (HPV) is leading to a significant increase in a subset of these cancers.

Head and neck cancers can affect the:

  • Mouth (oral cavity)
  • Lips
  • Front two-thirds of the tongue
  • Gums
  • Lining of the cheeks
  • Floor of the mouth (under the tongue)
  • Bony top of the mouth (hard palate)
  • Throat (pharynx)
  • Upper part of the throat, behind the nose (nasopharynx)
  • Middle part of the throat, including the back of the mouth, or soft palate, the base of the tongue and the tonsils (oropharynx)
  • Lower part of the throat (hypopharynx)
  • Voice box, vocal cords, and epiglottis (larynx)
  • Nasal cavity (the hollow space inside the nose)
  • Paranasal sinuses (the hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose)
  • Salivary gland
  • Thyroid gland
  • Parathyroid gland(s)
  • Skull base
  • Skin of the head and neck


Signs and Symptoms

As with any cancer, the earlier head and neck cancer is detected and targeted, the greater the chances of success in treatment. If you have experienced any of the following symptoms, please seek the opinion of a qualified medical professional:

  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Loss of sight, taste, smell, or touch
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Consistent, unexplained pain in head or neck
  • Coughing up blood
  • Ulcerations in the throat, mouth, tongue, or skin
  • Unexplained lumps or bumps
  • Any neck mass of more than two weeks duration in the absence of infection/illness


Diagnosis and Treatment

An initial visit typically includes a discussion of medical history and examination of the head and neck area. Additional testing, such as imaging studies and laboratory work may also be needed to make a diagnosis.

If your visit to Mass. Eye and Ear reveals the presence of a tumor, our head and neck oncology team will partner with you to decide the best course of treatment, which may include surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy—or some combination of the three.

Being committed to treating the entire patient and not just the disease means a coordinated effort of many health care specialists may be needed. Recovery from surgery may require specialized rehabilitation, skilled nursing, home health care, and other services, and we are here to help you through each step. For example, our Speech Language Pathology team is comprised of experts in speech and swallow rehabilitation and is integral to achieving optimal function and recovery during and after treatment. Our Social Work and Discharge Planning offices also work together to coordinate all the required services to best meet you and your family’s needs after treatment.


To schedule an appointment, call 617-573-3954 today.