Ask the Expert: What is head and neck cancer?

19 March 2019

Head and neck cancer is the 8th most common cancer in the UK, accounting for 3% of all new cancer cases, with approximately 11,700 new head & neck cancer cases in the UK every year. It’s more common in males, with only 30% of cases being female, and also in people living in the most deprived areas in the UK.

Our Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon, Mr Janavikulam Thiruchelvam, discusses the different types of head & neck cancer, mouth cancer symptoms to look out for and how to prevent it.


What is head and neck cancer?

There are many different types of head & neck cancer including:

  • Oral (mouth)
  • Oro-pharyngeal (the back of the throat behind the mouth)
  • Nasopharyngeal (the part of the throat connecting the back of the nose to the back of the mouth)
  • Hypopharyngeal (the bottom of the throat)
  • Laryngeal (voice box)
  • Salivary gland (the gland that produce saliva/spit)
  • Skin
  • Thyroid (the gland that produces hormones)

Mouth cancer is the most common head and neck cancer, and affects the lips, lining of the mouth, front two-thirds of the tongue, the gums, the area of the mouth underneath the tongue, the roof of the mouth and the jaw bone.

What causes mouth cancer?

If you smoke and drink alcohol you are 15-30% more likely to get mouth cancer. There are 7,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke with more than 70 carcinogens (a substance capable of causing cancer), and therefore smoking and chewing tobacco is advised against. Trauma and infections, including viral, can also cause mouth cancer.

What symptoms should I look out for?

The most common symptoms are:

  • Sore mouth ulcers that don’t heal within several weeks
  • Persistent lumps in your mouth that don’t go away with no explanation
  • Persistent lumps in the lymph glands in your neck that don’t go away with no explanation

Other less common symptoms may include:

  • Speech problems or changes to your voice
  • Pain of difficulty when swallowing
  • Weight loss with no explanation
  • Bleeding or numbness in your mouth
  • A tooth, or teeth, that become loose for no obvious reason, or if a tooth falls out and the socket doesn’t heal
  • Difficulty moving your jaw
  • Red or white patches on the lining of your mouth (these are common and very rarely cancerous, but you should see your doctor if they last more than 2 weeks)

Is there anything I can do to prevent it?

A healthy lifestyle and good nutrition are the most effective ways of preventing mouth cancer, especially not smoking or drinking over the recommended weekly limit. Including plenty of fresh vegetables, particularly tomatoes, and citrus fruits, olive oil and fish, in your diet can also help prevent it.

Regular dental check-ups are important in prevention, as dentists can often spot the early stages of mouth cancer.


If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms discussed Mr Janavikulam Thiruchelvam is available at Spire London East Hospital on Tuesdays and Saturdays. To book simply call our Private Patient Executive team on 020 8709 7817 or book online.

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