Head & 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). There are more than 30 areas within the head and neck where cancer can develop.

Head and neck cancer is the seventh 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.

Risk Factors

  • Smoking: Smokers have a higher risk than non-smokers. Actually, a person who smokes will be 15 times more likely to develop head and neck cancer than a non-smoker.
  • 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 (HPV): Associated with causing a number of head and neck cancers; it can cause cancers of the throat, tongue and tonsils, otherwise known as oropharyngeal cancers (OPSCC).


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 increasing. It is most common in people over 40 years old. The connection between HPV and head and neck cancers is increasing in a younger demographic.

Signs and Symptoms

The ‘1for3’ definition was developed by leading experts in head and neck cancer across Europe. It states that primary 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.

Cancer 1For3