Stanford Head and Neck Center

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Head and Neck Oncology Program (HNOP)

What is Head and Neck Cancer?

Head and neck cancer is a term that can include the broad array of tumors which may arise in this anatomically diverse region of the human body. Most often, the term head and neck cancer refers to tumors that arise from “squamous” cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces of the mouth and throat. In fact, 95% of head and neck tumors are squamous cell carcinoma.

Tumors of the thyroid, salivary, and parathyroid glands, as well as cancers of the brain, nose and paranasal sinuses, esophagus, and eye, are not usually categorized as head and neck cancer. Furthermore, tumors of the skin, muscle and bone arising in the head and neck are also typically not included in this term.

Head and neck cancer is then further classified by its location within the mouth and throat:

Oral cavity

The lips, the oral tongue” (the forward two-thirds or front part of the tongue), the gums lining the upper and lower jaws, as well as the lining inside the cheek.  The area known as the floor of the mouth is a mobile area between the lower jaw and gum and the oral tongue.  The roof of the mouth or “hard palate” is also included as part of the oral cavity.  Finally, a small triangulated area of mucosa or gum lining the area behind the last wisdom tooth is called the“retromolar trigone” and is also part of the oral cavity.


In medical terminology, the throat is known as the pharynx.  In fact, the pharynx is supple tube or funnel that connects both the nose and mouth to the swallowing tube or esophagus.  The pharynx is composed of three parts: the nasopharynx (the area just behind the nose); the oropharynx (behind the oral cavity and in the back of the mouth], and the hypopharynx, which surrounds the voice box and leads into the esophagus.

The larynx also known as the “voice box" and is technically separate from from the pharynx. Human speech originates within the larynx at the vocal cords. 

The larynx critical not only for the production of speech, but also breathing and swallowing. The “supraglottic” larynx has a valve called the epiglottis, which covers the larynx during swallowing to prevent “aspiration” of food into the lungs.