Cancer Information

Make Sense of Head and Neck Cancer

Head and neck cancer is a way of describing any cancer that is found in the head or neck region, except in the eyes, brain, ears or oesophagus. The cancers usually begin in the squamous cells that line the moist, mucosal surfaces inside the head and neck; for example inside the mouth, nose and throat.

Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common type of cancer in Europe.  It is about half as common as lung cancer, but twice as common as cervical cancer. There were more than 150,000 new patients diagnosed in Europe in 2012, which is the equivalent to the Olympic stadium in London being filled with people almost twice over.

Despite its severity and increasing prevalence within society, there is little awareness of head and neck cancer and patient outcomes remain very poor: 60% of people with head and neck cancer present with locally advanced disease at diagnosis, and 60% of people diagnosed at an advanced stage die from the disease within five years. However, for those patients diagnosed in the early stages of the disease there is an 80–90% survival rate.

What are the risk factors?



  • Smoking: Smokers have a higher risk of head and neck cancer than non-smokers
  • Alcohol: Men who consume more than three units and women who consume more than two units of alcohol per day are at a significantly higher risk of developing head and neck cancer
  • Human Papillomavirus: The incidence of throat cancer is rising due to certain sub-types of the Human Papillomavirus


Men are two to three times more likely to develop head and neck cancer than women. However, the incidence of head and neck cancer in women is now increasing. Head and neck cancer is most common in people over the age of 40, but there has been a recent increase in younger people developing the disease.

Signs & Symptoms

How to recognise symptoms

The ‘One for Three’ definition, developed by leading experts in head and neck cancer across Europe states that primary healthcare practitioners should refer a patient to a head and neck specialist if they have any one of the following symptoms for more than three weeks.

If you have any ONE of these symptoms for more than THREE weeks… seek medical advice



Fourth European Head & Neck Cancer Awareness Week

19–23 September 2016

Advocating for care that makessense