Cancer information for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander People

Head and neck cancer

If cancer of the head and neck is found and treated early, you have a good chance of getting better.

What is head and neck cancer?

Cancer can develop in any of the tissues or organs in the head and neck. This means cancer can develop in the mouth, voice box, sinuses, nose, lips, and salivary glands down through the throat.

Head and neck cancer is a general term that doctors use. It covers many different types of cancer. Although these cancers are different, they are treated similarly, so are often grouped together.

Head and neck cancers can be described by the area where they started. They are also described according to the type of cell the cancer started in.

How will I know I have head and neck cancer?

Common signs may include:

  • an ulcer in the mouth that doesn’t heal within a few weeks
  • red or white patches in the mouth that don’t go away within a few weeks
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when chewing or swallowing
  • changes to your voice like sounding hoarse
  • a constant sore throat and earache on one side
  • a swelling or lump in the face, mouth or neck.

To check these signs for cancer, you may have several tests. Often this will include an ultrasound or a thin tube with a light at the end will be used to look at the back of your mouth and throat.

One of the most important tests for diagnosing cancer is a biopsy. This means taking a sample of cells from the area that looks abnormal.

These tests can feel uncomfortable, but they only take a few minutes.

What do the test results mean?

The test results will tell the doctor what type of head and neck cancer you have, and if the cancer has spread (the stage). This information helps the doctors decide what treatment you need.

Stage 1 – the cancer is small, localised and usually curable
Stage 2 and 3 – the cancer is locally advanced and/or has spread to local lymph nodes
Stage 4 – the cancer has spread to distant parts of the body.



What treatment will I need?

There are different types of treatment for head and neck cancer. You may have one or more of these treatments:

  • Surgery – removes the lump or cancer, if possible
    • Ask your doctor if the surgery might change the way you talk, eat, breath or the way you look.
    • Surgery may also remove lymph nodes that the cancer may have spread to.
  • Chemotherapy – uses drugs to kill or damage the cancer cells
    • Used for more advanced cancer and for symptom relief with
    advanced disease.
  • Radiation therapy – uses x-rays to kill or damage the cancer cells
    • May be used after surgery if the cancer has spread.
    • Used for symptom relief with advanced cancer.

How will the treatment affect my body?

Treatment for head and neck cancer can cause problems. Some of the common ones include:

  • Redness at the radiotherapy site
  • Sores in your mouth
  • A dry mouth or thick spit (saliva)
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Changes in taste
  • Nausea

How do I manage the cancer?

It is normal for you and your family to have lots of different feelings right now. Talking with your doctor, nurse or health care professional will help answer any questions you may have.