Cancer Council Australia

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Head and neck cancer

about this glossary tool

Head and neck cancers occur inside the sinuses, nose, mouth and salivary glands down through the throat. Although these cancers are different, they are treated similarly, so are considered as a group.

Incidence and mortality

In 2012, 3,254 head and neck cancers were diagnosed in Australia. These figures include cancers of the tongue, gum, mouth, salivary glands, tonsils, pharynx, nasal cavity and larynx, but not cancers of the lip.

In 2013, there were 1,076 deaths in Australia due to head and neck cancers.


No routine screening tests are used. White plaques or patches in the mouth (leukoplakia) may precede the development of the cancer.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Symptoms depend on the site but include:

  • pain
  • swelling
  • hoarse voice
  • difficulty swallowing
  • bad breath.

Diagnosis is by a biopsy obtained using an endoscope, needle or surgically.


The extent of the tumour is defined by the size of the lump and whether there is spread to lymph nodes or further to the lungs or bones. CT, MRI, bone and PET scans are used. Visual examination using an endoscope may be required.


The main causes are alcohol and tobacco consumption. Some head and neck cancers are related to human papilloma virus infection.


The risk of head and neck cancers can be reduced by not smoking (or quitting) and reducing alcohol consumption.


The definitive treatment for local disease is surgery to the primary lump and draining the lymph glands. Full dose radiotherapy may be used in sites where functions such as speech can be preserved. Radiotherapy can be given in sequence with chemotherapy (commonly cisplatin, 5 fluorouracil or the taxanes) for more advanced cancer and both can be used for symptom relief with widespread disease.


An individual’s prognosis depends on the type and stage of cancer, as well as their age and general health at the time of diagnosis. At most sites, treatment of small, localised cancer results in at least 75% of patients surviving five years after diagnosis. With more advanced disease at diagnosis this drops to 15%.

For further information, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 (cost of a local call within Australia).


For more information

For health professionals


  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2015. ACIM (Australian Cancer Incidence and Mortality) Books. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2012. Cancer data: Pivot table. AIHW: Canberra.  Available from

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This page was last updated on: Tuesday, February 9, 2016