Cancer Types | Head and Neck Cancers - NFCR

Head and Neck Cancers

Head and Neck Cancers

As the name implies, head and neck cancer is a group of cancers that starts within the mouth, nose, throat, larynx, sinuses or salivary glands. Head and neck cancers combined are the sixth most common group of cancers in the world and oftentimes considered preventable because making certain lifestyle changes significantly lowers a person’s risk.

Key Facts

  • An estimated 66,630 new cases of head and neck cancers will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2021, with estimates of 14,620 deaths expected to result from the diagnosis.
  • Head and neck cancers account for 4% of all cancers in the U.S.
  • Men are two to three times more likely than women to develop a head or neck cancer because of their greater use of tobacco and alcohol. However, head and neck cancers found in women have been rising for several years.
  • The consumption of tobacco (including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and smokeless tobacco) and alcohol are the most common causes of head and neck cancers. Tobacco-induced head and neck cancer is slowly declining globally, in part to decreased use of tobacco.
  • The fraction of head and neck cancers due to infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV) or Epstein-Barr virus HPV is rising. Other risk factors for head and neck cancers may include poor oral hygiene, exposure to occupational inhalants (such as asbestos or wood dust), a diet low in vegetables and fruits, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and a weakened immune system.
Source: American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts & Figures 2021 and GLOBOCAN 2018

Signs and Symptoms

A symptom is a change in the body that a person can see and/or feel. A sign is a change that the doctor sees during an examination or on a laboratory test result. If you have any of the symptoms below, it does not mean you have cancer but you should see your doctor or health care professional so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

  • Painless white patch or red patch in the mouth
  • Hoarseness or change in voice
  • Sore throat
  • Foul mouth odor not explained by hygiene
  • Nasal obstruction or persistent nasal congestion
  • Painless lump in the mouth or neck
  • Difficulty chewing, swallowing or breathing
  • Loosening of teeth
  • Frequent nosebleed, particularly on one side of the nose
  • Hearing loss or ear pain, particularly in one ear
  • Blood in saliva or phlegm
  • Weight loss or fatigue
Source: American Cancer Society 2021 and American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2021
Burgundy Ivory Head and Neck Cancer Ribbon
expected diagnoses in 2021
expected deaths in 2021
% of all cancer diagnoses

Head and Neck Cancers Research

In addition to specific projects listed below, genomics research is helping us attack head and neck cancers – and all types of cancer. NFCR has distinguished itself from other organizations by emphasizing long-term, transformative research and working to move people toward cancer genomics.

Ronald A. DePinho, M.D.

One of the major signaling proteins in tumor formation and suppression of our immune system found in over 50% of cancers is STAT3. As an activator of the expression of genes, STAT3 controls networks of genes that allow cancer growth and metastasis (spreading). However, the development of a drug that targets STAT3 has been a challenge for the research community, earning STAT3 the label of ‘undruggable’.

Dr. Ron DePinho and his colleagues used computer-based drug screening of hundreds of thousands of compounds from chemical libraries to identify several compounds that inhibit STAT3 protein in complex tumor models of various cancers. With funds from the NFCR AIM-HI Translational Research Initiative, the scientists have brought the lead inhibitor agent to clinical trials to treat head and neck cancer and other advanced cancers, giving patients hope that their lives may be saved.

Paul Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D.
Paul Fisher, M.Ph., Ph.D.

Dr. Paul Fisher previously discovered IL/24 – a powerful cytokine or immune modulator gene. In models of numerous types of cancer including head and neck cancer, IL/24 gene therapy causes primary and spreading tumor cells throughout the body to commit ‘cell suicide’ (apoptosis) but leaves healthy cells untouched. The first Phase I clinical trial for IL/24 gene therapy demonstrated apoptosis in tumors from patients with head and neck and other types of cancer. Additionally, IL/24 was shown to be safe as well for patients.

Dr. Fisher has demonstrated other remarkable anti-cancer properties of IL/24 including activation of the immune system to further fight cancer and sensitizing tumor cells to radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy. He has developed different ways to deliver cytokine IL/24 gene therapy and research is advancing quickly so patients with many types of cancer may benefit from the groundbreaking therapies. With support from NFCR, Dr. Fisher and Dr. Web Cavenee will first advance lL/24 therapies to clinical trials for the aggressive brain cancer, GBM, and patients hope for a new effective treatment to save their lives.

Esther H. Chang, Ph.D.
Esther H. Chang, Ph.D.

Dr. Esther Chang, who received NFCR funding for 25 years, has devoted her career to improving the efficacy of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Dr. Chang and her team developed a nanoscale drug delivery system that carries anti-cancer agents (like the p53 tumor suppressor gene) directly to both primary and metastatic tumor cells. In earlier work, they found that this approach significantly enhanced a tumor’s sensitivity to chemo and radiation therapies in complex tumor models of 16 different types of cancer, including head and neck, prostate, pancreatic and breast cancer and melanoma.

Related Content

Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month

Though only making up 4% of cancer diagnoses in the United States, it is estimated that head and neck cancer will take the lives of approximately 14,620 Americans this year alone. Head and neck cancer refer to cancers in the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, sinuses and nasal cavity, and salivary glands. These cancers are often accompanied by symptoms that are uncomfortable and disruptive to everyday life, such as difficulty chewing, swallowing, breathing, or moving one’s jaw. Luckily, many cases of head and neck cancer are preventable and current treatment can often remove the tumor without many complications. Prevention The majority of head and neck cancer cases are preventable with certain lifestyle modifications. Some risk factors, such as gender and age, are uncontrollable but work in conjunction with modifiable risk factors. Men, for example, are two to three times more likely than women to develop head and neck cancer. It is also more common to see such cancers in people over the age of 40. To greatly reduce the chances of developing head and neck cancer, individuals should consider: Eliminating tobacco use Like many health-related concerns, quitting or reducing tobacco use can greatly reduce one’s risk of developing head and neck cancer. Tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, smokeless tobacco and secondhand smoke, is the single largest risk factor associated with this type of cancer. In fact, 85% of head and neck cancers are attributed to tobacco use. While quitting use altogether is the best way to protect oneself from head and neck cancer, reducing the amount used may positively affect one’s chance of recovery. Reducing alcohol consumption Frequent and heavy alcohol consumption is a major risk factor associated with head and neck cancer. Reducing alcohol consumption should be done over a prolonged period of time, as the risk of developing cancer reduces slowly over time as one reduces or stops consumption. Minimizing sun exposure and be UV smart Skin cancer and cancer around the lip area are most often caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun. To reduce the risk of developing cancer from UV exposure, individuals are recommended to reduce sun exposure, seek shade, and use sunscreen when able. Practicing safe sex Research shows that the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is also a risk factor for head and neck cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause both cervical cancer and head and neck cancer. While there is a vaccine recommended to protect against the strand of HPV that is linked to cervical cancer, currently there is not a vaccine proven to protect against the variation that causes head and neck cancer. Experts recommend that individuals practice safe sex, including oral sex. Detection and Treatment Most types of head and neck cancers can be cured, especially if found early enough. While there are no current screening methods in place, people who regularly use tobacco and/or alcohol should receive general health screenings at least once a year. Regular health appointments provide medical professionals the opportunity to monitor for any abnormalities in the head and neck region. The most common symptom of head and neck cancer is swelling or […]

Head and Neck Cancer Awareness Month: Possible Link to Mental Health Disorders

Accounting for approximately 3% of cancer cases nationwide, the symptoms of head and neck cancer are particularly uncomfortable. Head and neck cancer refers to tumors that develop around the throat, larynx, nose, sinus and mouth. As these areas support vital bodily functions, such as eating and breathing, the symptoms can often be disruptive. The most common symptoms are swelling and open sores in affected areas. Other symptoms may include difficulty breathing, jaw pain, loosening of the teeth, double vision or persistent nose bleeds. These types of cancers can result in difficulty chewing or swallowing. In addition to painful and troublesome symptoms, head and neck cancers may also influence the development of mental health disorders. In a 2019 study of over 50,000 patients, researchers at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine identified a link between the prevalence of mental health disorders and head and neck cancer. Previous studies have made a connection between mental disorders and head and neck cancers, but this is the first study to conduct a large-scale analysis of the possible link between the two. Using records from 2005 to 2014, the research team found that the prevalence of mental health disorders rose from 20.6% to 29.9% after the diagnosis. While a head and neck cancer diagnosis appeared to be specifically associated with mental health disorders, there were several other factors which put a patient at higher risk. It was established that patients were even more likely to develop a mental health disorder if they were women, or had a history of smoking or alcohol use. Despite the patient demographics and behaviors influencing the likelihood of mental health disorders, the type of head and neck cancer also played a role. Oral cavity cancers made up over 40% of the cases studied, yet patients with cancer of the trachea were found to be at a higher risk. Patients diagnosed with cancer of the trachea were twice as likely to develop mental health disorders as patients with oral cavity cancers. These findings are unable to suggest interventions to decrease the percentage of mental health disorders developed, however, they do provide insight as to the importance of addressing psychosocial needs in routine treatment discussions. While there are no known recommendations for patients to prevent the development of a mental health disorder, there are preventable risk factors for head and neck cancers. Over 80% of head and neck cancers are linked to tobacco usage. Reducing tobacco use of any kind is the best way to prevent the development of head and neck cancer. It has also been found that a poor diet and alcohol consumption may be other common risk factors. A poor diet low in vitamins A and B can increase a person’s risk of head and neck cancer. Individuals that use tobacco or consume alcohol are encouraged to undergo a general health screening each year. This is a simple screening where a doctor examines the nose, mouth, throat and neck for any abnormities or lumps. It is also recommended tobacco users and non-tobacco users schedule regular dental check-ups. A diagnosis of a mental health disorder may be uncontrollable, but […]

Master Switch Metastasis Agent Identified

In a major breakthrough, scientists led by Elena Deryugina at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) identified a specific protein, Latent TGFβ Binding Protein 3—LTBP3 for short—that kicks off a cellular chain reaction resulting in early-development tumors growing new blood vessels. These vessels then act like highways to spread cancer cells throughout the body, seeding metastatic tumors very early on. The crux discovery has to do with the “T” in LTBP3, TGFβ, a protein that has long caught the attention of cancer researchers as a target for chemotherapy drugs. Having multiple roles in healthy people and in disease, TGFβ can be both a promoter and suppressor of tumor cell growth. However, current technologies have yet to be so specific as to successfully target TGFβ’s harmful effects while leaving its normal, and vital, role in the body unhindered. Deryugina surmises that LTBP3 is the smoking gun, setting TGFβ up as a cancer-promoting factor. “Specifically, LTBP3 appears to help tumors grow new blood vessels in a process called angiogenesis, which is critical for tumor cell intravasation, that is, when cancer cells enter into blood vessels of defined size and permeability,” notes Deryugina, Ph.D., an assistant professor at TSRI and first author of the new study. “Lower LTBP3 levels appear to be associated with better prognosis in patients with certain types of cancer.” TSRI researchers used chick embryo tumor models and a rodent model of head and neck cancer to discover how LTBP3 is involved in the spread of aggressive tumor cells. They knocked down LTBP3 expression and secretion in human tumor cell lines representing carcinoma, head and neck carcinoma and a fibrosarcoma. In each model, the team found that without LTBP3, primary tumor cells could not metastasize efficiently. The idea that metastasis is solely a late-stage phenomena in cancer is untrue. Standing research shows that the initial steps of tumor metastasis can occur when a primary tumor is barely detectable. It was this that sparked Deryugina’s interest in the role of LTBP3. She and her team knew that LTBP3 partners with TGFβ to regulate its secretion, activation and maturation, but wondered what else LTBP3 might control. “Our experimental findings showed that LTBP3 is active in the very early steps of metastatic spread,” says Deryugina’s collegue and study senior author James P. Quigley, Ph.D. Importantly, the new data is in line with other clinical findings showing LTBP3 levels can indicate better overall survival in cancer patients with early-stage head and neck carcinomas. Taken together, these findings suggest LTBP3 may be a good “upstream” drug target to treat early stage tumors without affecting more complex roles of TGFβ in other parts of the body. Researchers next plan to investigate precisely how LTBP3 and TGFβ biochemically partner in the induction of new blood vessels deep within a tumor. NFCR Tie-in Renowned metastatic cancer researcher, Danny R. Welch, Ph.D., a Fellow of the National Foundation for Cancer Research (NFCR), first discovered the pro-invasive/pro-metastasis effect of TGFβ in experiments with mammary adenocarcinoma cells in 1990. Since 1996, NFCR support for Dr. Danny Welch has enabled him to discover eight of the more than 30 functionally defined metastasis suppressor […]