The way a particular head and neck cancer behaves depends on the site in which it arises (the primary site). For example, cancers that begin in the vocal cords behave very differently than those that arise in the back of the tongue, which is only an inch or less from the vocal cords.
The most common type of cancer in the head and neck is squamous cell carcinoma, which arises from the cells that line the inside of the nose, mouth and throat. Squamous cell cancer is often associated with a history of smoking or exposure to the human papilloma virus (HPV). Other less common types of head and neck cancers include salivary gland tumors, lymphomas, and sarcomas. Methods of prevention include avoidance of exposure to alcohol and tobacco products as well as vaccination of children and young adults against HPV.
Cancers spread in four main ways. The first is direct extension from the primary site to adjacent areas. The second is spread through the lymphatic channels to lymph nodes. The third is spread along nerves (perineural spread) to other areas of the head and neck. The fourth is spread through the blood vessels to distant sites in the body. In head and neck cancer, a spread to the lymph nodes in the neck is relatively common.