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This week is European Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Week. But let’s be honest, it’s not the most high-profile event on the calendar. Head and neck cancers can be kind of hard to understand - the definitions aren’t simple, the cancers themselves are rare, and even imagining where they are can be difficult. Most people can picture where the lungs are, but can you point to your nasopharynx? How do you even pronounce “otolaryngology”, much less define it? So in this blog, we’d like to try and clear up a few things.
(By the way, your nasopharynx is just above the soft part at the back of your mouth, where it connects your nose to your throat. And the word is pronounced “oh-toe-lar-en-gall-uh-gee”. It means ‘study of the ear and throat', and if you play it in Scrabble it could score up to 266 points.)
So, what are head and neck cancers? Most are cancers that start in the mouth or throat. But the group also includes rarer ones found in the nose, the sinuses, the part of the throat called the pharynx, and the salivary glands. Here’s a diagram that shows where they are (including the nasopharynx, if you’re still thinking about that one):
The group of head and neck cancers does not include the brain, eyes, oesophagus, skin, thyroid or trachea.
Head and neck cancers are quite rare. There were only about 12,000 cases in all of the UK in 2015. We know that if they are found early, most head and neck cancers can be well treated. The European Head & Neck Society have identified the most critical symptoms. If you have one or more of these symptoms for 3 weeks, please see your doctor:
Head and neck cancers are more often found in older men, but they can affect women too. And younger people can also be affected. There are some things that increase the risk of developing head and neck cancers. These include:
Alcohol and tobacco are the main risk factors, and reducing your exposure to alcohol and tobacco is good for a lot of other reasons too. If you would like help to cut down on your smoking, Macmillan has information you might find useful. If you’re worried about HPV, please speak to your GP or your local sexual health clinic – they will have more information about HPV, how it’s spread, and how it can be prevented.
If you have more questions or concerns, you can contact Macmillan’s support line on 0808 808 00 00 for free. Macmillan’s Online Community also has a group for people affected by head and neck cancers, where people can ask questions, share experiences, and support each other. The Make Sense campaign has additional resources available to people with head and neck cancers.
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My husband died from head and neck cancer which started as a squamous cell cancer on his forehead and spread to his salivary gland and facial nerves. It involved a large open wound d on his forehead which never healed and by the time the medical staff realised it had spread it was inoperable. What followed was a nightmare year and it was clear that there needs to be much more accurate knowledge developed about this type of cancer, which in addition to pain is disfiguring. My husband never smoked was fit and healthy before this. In addition to everything else more research is needed into chronic wound treatment. The fabulous hospice where he died accepted that they had little experience with this type of cancer, including dressing such a raw facial wound. I feel angry that more is not known about head and neck cancer.
After being diagnosed with cancer at the base of the tongue in 2009, I had 45 bouts of radio therap is. This appears to have got rid of the cancer, but no-will say I am cured. The aftermath is Is I have since had several operations and now have no lower jaw. I breathe through my neck with a tracheotomy tube, am fed through a Rig in my stomach as my throat is closed up. I have no speech so commmunicate via a wipe board or tablet using text to speech. Am unable to walk any distance due to tracheostomy. I have no control over my lips and dribble constantly, so overall not a great quality of life.
So sorry for your loss Effie, and sorry to read of your difficulties following treatment tonybt.
I'm in my 2nd week of Radiotherapy/chemotherapy, 4 and a bit weeks to go.
I have a P16 positive cell carcinoma of the right oropharynx involving soft palate, tonsil and younger base and possible right posterior mandible.
I have been told that due to the proximity of an abnormal area in my jaw (biopsy was clear) they will not be able to effectively spare it, and that I will be at high risk of complications of osteonecrosis.
My oncologist was very positive about my prognosis and eventual cure and recovery.
I think that I would have presented to my Dr earlier had I put all my symptoms together and came up with a warning. As it was, major weight loss was the trigger. Other minor symptoms included fleeting headaches that felt different to a normal one, kind of on the surface rather than in my head; very mild sore throat, occasional earaches, tiredness.
I just hope that I didn't leave it too late to save my jaw, I really don't want to be in your boat tonybt.
I'm not in pain anymore (Apart from my RIG) thanks to the chemo, which has shrunk the tumour and allowed me to swallow almost normally. I still have trouble opening my mouth more than a fingers width, but I chop my food small and manage ok.
My wife is pestering me to try taking activated curcumin supplement which is said to help the treatment along. I'm a big sceptic and am loathe to take it if it's a waste of time, or worse, have a detrimental effect on my treatment.
I'm hunting for some published, peer reviewed papers on the efficacy of curcumin in treatment of H&N cancer. Please post a link, offer an opinion if you have one.
Best wishes to you
Hi Ettie Thank you for your comment.
We're sorry to hear of your husband's death, and that you had such a tough and frustrating year. If you ever want someone to talk to about how it's made you feel, remember you can call us free on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday between 9am and 8pm.
We're glad you've also found the Online Community and I hope it provides some support. You may not know that we have a group for Bereaved spouses and partners where you can find support from other people who might be going through a similar experience, which you might wish to join.
All the best,Liza
Hi tonybt, Thank you for comment. We're sorry to hear of your diagnosis and to read that you're having to deal with those difficult changes to your life. We're glad to see you've found the Online Community and hope it is providing some support. Are you a member of our Head and neck cancer group? You might find sharing comments and reading other people's stories is a useful source of support.
If you have questions or concerns about the changes to your life, or if you just want to tell someone about how these changes are making you feel, you may also wish to write to our support line via this online form.
Or, if you have a computer, tablet or smartphone you can download the NGT Lite app for free to message the support line. The NGT app works by connecting you to a relay assistant who reads to the other person the words you've typed, and types to you their reply.
For more information about the Next Generation Text Service, how to download the app and how to use it, please visit the Next Generation Text Service website.I hope that is of some help, and wish you all the best,Liza
Hi Blunt ,
Thank you for your comment.
We're sorry to hear of your diagnosis. It's good to hear that you are managing okay and that your pain has improved.
If you're unsure about taking the supplement, the best thing to do is to speak to your healthcare team about your concerns. We recommend always telling your cancer doctor about any drugs you are planning to take - including vitamins, herbal drugs and supplements. They know your situation best, and will be in the best position to discuss what effect any drugs or supplements will have on your treatment, if any.
If you or your wife would like to talk to one of our cancer information nurse specialists about your concerns or questions about the supplement, they are available on 0808 808 00 00, Monday to Friday from 9am to 8pm. Or you can write to them via this online form, if you'd prefer not to call. We hope you're also finding the Online Community a source of support. If you would like to join, we have a group for people with head and neck cancer, which you might find helpful.I hope this is of some help, and wish you all the best with treatment. Liza
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