Head and Neck Cancer

What Is It?

Head and neck cancer begins with the abnormal growth of cells. These cells multiply out of control, eventually forming a tumor in part of the head or neck. As the tumor grows, it can form a lump, a sore, or an abnormal patch of white or discolored tissue. Without treatment, the tumor can invade and destroy nearby bones and soft tissues. Eventually, it can spread (metastasize) to lymph nodes in the neck and to other parts of the body.

In many cases, head and neck cancers are triggered by carcinogens. These are substances that cause cancer. Common carcinogens include tobacco smoke, smokeless (chewing) tobacco, and snuff. Chronic or heavy alcohol use also contributes to head and neck cancer. The disease is especially prevalent in those who both use tobacco and drink alcohol. The human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer in women, has been linked to a growing number of throat cancers in men. Although a cause and effect relationship has not been proven, oral sex may be to blame for the transmission of HPV.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »