the words 'head and neck cancer awareness month' in white bold text on a moroon background. There is a light outline graphic of a head, neck and shoulders next to the text.

This July, we are turning the spotlight on head and neck cancers, as part of an Awareness Month coinciding with World Head and Neck Cancer Day on 27 July. These are a relatively rare group of cancers, but according to Head and Neck Cancer Australia over 5300 people are diagnosed each year. These cancers and treatment often have a huge impact as swallowing, speaking and breathing can be affected.

What are head and neck cancers

Head and neck cancer refers to a group of cancers that occur in the mouth, throat, nose, sinuses, salivary glands, and other areas of the head and neck. Head and neck cancers are grouped into three main types based on where the cancer first forms in the body:

  • Mucosal squamous cell carcinomas originate in the squamous cells lining the moist areas of the mouth, nose, and throat. This is the most common type.
  • Adenocarcinomas begin in the glandular cells found in the head and neck region.
  • Cutaneous carcinomas develop from the skin of the head and neck area.

Prevention, risk factors & causes

Head and neck cancer can be caused by different factors. These include:

  • tobacco and alcohol use
  • infection with certain strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • exposure to certain chemicals and toxins (such as asbestos, wood dust and formaldehyde)
  • poor oral hygiene
  • chronic irritation of the mouth and throat, and genetic factors (such as inheriting Fanconi anaemia or Li-Fraumeni syndrome)
  • past radiation therapy to the head and neck area.

Regular dental check-ups and maintaining good oral hygiene are important for early detection and prevention. It is vital to avoid tobacco and excessive alcohol consumption. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by remaining active and eating a balanced diet with fresh foods is also important.


Symptoms of head and neck cancer can vary depending on the location and stage of the cancer, but common signs include persistent sore throat, difficulty swallowing, changes in voice or hoarseness, a lump or sore that doesn't go away, ear pain, numbness or weakness in the face, bad breath and unexplained weight loss. For a full list of symptoms for each cancer type visit the Cancer Australia website.


Head and neck cancer is often detected through a combination of methods, including physical examination, imaging tests such as CT scans and MRIs, endoscopy to examine the inside of the throat and voice box, and biopsy to collect tissue samples for examination under a microscope. Additionally, certain screening tests may be recommended for individuals at higher risk, such as those with a history of tobacco or alcohol use, or persistent symptoms suggestive of head and neck cancer.


Treatment for head and neck cancer depends on the type, stage, and location of the cancer, but may include surgery to remove the tumor, radiation therapy to kill cancer cells, chemotherapy to destroy cancer cells or shrink tumors, targeted therapy to attack specific molecules within cancer cells, and immunotherapy to boost the body's immune response against cancer. In some cases, a combination of these treatments may be used. Additionally, supportive care such as nutritional support and speech therapy may be incorporated into the treatment plan to help manage side effects and improve quality of life.

Support, resources, further information

Head and neck cancer Australia (HANCA). The only national charity dedicated to providing education and support to people living with Head and Neck Cancer. The HANCA website is you go-to for information, resources and support.

Counterpart – Peer support volunteers. Women who have all had their own experience of cancer, supporting other women who have cancer.  

Counterpart – cancer types. Visit the Head and Neck cancer section of this page for links to further information and resources.

Last Updated: 1 July, 2024 2:05 pm