Head and neck cancer​ – overview​

Key points

  • Head and neck cancer occurs mainly in adults, however, some children may present with either benign or malignant tumours of the head and neck
  • Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs) develop and support the communication skills of both the patient and communicative partners
  • SLTs have a unique and essential role to help facilitate alaryngeal voice restoration post laryngectomy

What is head and neck cancer?

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The term head and neck cancer describes a range of tumours. The most common places of head and neck cancers are the:

  • Oral cavity
  • Back part of the throat behind the oral cavity (oropharynx)
  • Upper part of the throat behind the nose (nasopharynx)
  • Bottom part of the throat (hypopharynx)
  • Voice box (larynx)
  • Nasal cavity
  • Salivary glands

Treatments for these cancers may include surgery to remove structures essential for functions (e.g. voice box – a laryngectomy), radiotherapy, chemoradiotherapy or a combination of treatments.

These commonly affect a person’s ability to speak, use their voice, swallow, smell and breathe, significantly affecting quality of life. Left unsupported, these difficulties can also affect a person’s ability to participate in social activities and to return to work.

The size of the problem

  • Around 62,530 people were living with head and neck cancer in the UK in 2010
  • Head and neck cancer accounts for approximately 8,800 new case diagnosed in England and Wales each year
  • In the UK, the incidence rate of head and neck cancer is 8 per 100,000
  • Head and neck cancer is much more common in men than women. Oral cancer, the most common form of head and cancer, causes more deaths in males than females at a ratio of 2:1

For references to these statistics, please see our factsheets:

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