Skip Navigation
 
 
 
 

Types of Cancer We Treat

Head & Neck Cancers

This multidisciplinary care approach has been offered for more than 50 years by the Geisinger head and neck cancer team.

Diagnosis

linear acceleratorMost head and neck cancers begin in the cells that line the mucosal surfaces in the head and neck area, e.g., mouth, nose, and throat. Mucosal surfaces are moist tissues lining hollow organs and cavities of the body open to the environment. Normal mucosal cells look like scales (squamous) under the microscope, so head and neck cancers are often referred to as squamous cell carcinomas.

Some head and neck cancers begin in other types of cells. For example, cancers that begin in glandular cells are called adenocarcinomas. At right, the Varian Trilogy Linear Accelerator at GMC can deliver conventional and stereotactic approaches to treating cancer.

Cancers of the head and neck are further identified by the area in which they begin:

  • Oral cavity - The oral cavity includes the lips, the front two-thirds of the tongue, the gingiva (gums), the buccal mucosa (lining inside the cheeks and lips), the floor (bottom) of the mouth under the tongue, the hard palate (bony top of the mouth), and the small area behind the wisdom teeth.
  • Salivary glands - The salivary glands produce saliva, the fluid that keeps mucosal surfaces in the mouth and throat moist. There are many salivary glands; the major ones are in the floor of the mouth, and near the jawbone.
  • Paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity - The paranasal sinuses are small hollow spaces in the bones of the head surrounding the nose. The nasal cavity is the hollow space inside the nose.
  • Pharynx - The pharynx is a hollow tube about 5 inches long that starts behind the nose and leads to the esophagus (the tube that goes to the stomach) and the trachea (the tube that goes to the lungs). The pharynx has three parts:
    • Nasopharynx. The nasopharynx, the upper part of the pharynx, is behind the nose.
    • Oropharynx - The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx. The oropharynx includes the soft palate (the back of the mouth), the base of the tongue, and the tonsils.
    • Hypopharynx - The hypopharynx is the lower part of the pharynx.
  • Larynx - The larynx, also called the voicebox, is a short passageway formed by cartilage just below the pharynx in the neck. The larynx contains the vocal cords. It also has a small piece of tissue, called the epiglottis, which moves to cover the larynx to prevent food from entering the air passages.
  • Lymph nodes in the upper part of the neck - Sometimes, squamous cancer cells are found in the lymph nodes of the upper neck when there is no evidence of cancer in other parts of the head and neck. When this happens, the cancer is called metastatic squamous neck cancer with unknown (occult) primary.

Cancers of the brain, eye, and thyroid as well as those of the scalp, skin, muscles, and bones of the head and neck are not usually grouped with cancers of the head and neck.

Treatment

At Geisinger, patients diagnosed with any form of head and neck cancer receive an individualized treatment plan developed by a team of cancer specialists including:

  • Otolaryngologists
  • Medical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Pathologists
  • Surgeons

Patients are offered the convenience of:

  • One visit to see multiple specialists
  • A treatment plan determined by a team of cancer specialists
  • No gap in care as the patient moves between chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgical treatment

Our Team

Physician Team Leaders:

Frequently Asked Questions

What causes head and neck cancers?
Tobacco (including smokeless tobacco) and alcohol use are the most important risk factors for head and neck cancers, particularly those of the oral cavity, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. According to the NCI, 85% of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco use. People who use both tobacco and alcohol are at greater risk for developing these cancers than people who use either tobacco or alcohol alone.

What are common symptoms of head and neck cancers?
Symptoms of several head and neck cancer sites include a lump or sore that does not heal, a sore throat that does not go away, difficulty swallowing, and a change or hoarseness in the voice.

What is an endoscopy?
An endoscopy is a procedure in which the physician takes a closer look at an area inside the body using an endoscope, a thin, lighted tube. The type of endoscope used depends on the area being examined. For example, a laryngoscope is inserted through the mouth to view the larynx; an esophagoscope is inserted through the mouth to examine the esophagus; and a nasopharyngoscope is inserted through the nose to view the nasal cavity and nasopharynx.