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The head and neck

In cancer medicine, the term “head and neck” has a particular meaning. The head and neck region includes the:

  • mouth – made up of the lips and the structures inside the oral cavity such as the tongue, palate and gums
  • throat – known as the pharynx
  • voice box – known as the larynx
  • nose – made up of the nasal cavity (the area behind the nose) and the sinuses
  • salivary glands – in the floor of the mouth and near the lower jaw
  • skin of the head and neck.

Other structures found in our head and neck are not considered part of the “head and neck” in cancer medicine (although they can be affected by nearby head and neck cancers and their treatment, and can also have their own types of cancer). These include the:

  • brain
  • eyes
  • thyroid – a hormone-producing gland found at the front of the neck and just below the voice box
  • oesophagus – the food pipe
  • trachea – the windpipe
  • bones and muscles of the head and neck.

Lymph nodes in the head and neck – The head and neck region also contains many lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are small, bean-shaped structures found throughout the body. They form part of the lymphatic system, which helps protect the body against disease and infection. When cancer spreads, it usually spreads to nearby lymph nodes first.

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Featured resources

Head and Neck Cancers - Your guide to best cancer care

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Understanding Head and Neck Cancers

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last updated September 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson, Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.