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Epithelial carcinomas of the head and neck arise from the mucosal surfaces in the head and neck and typically are squamous cell in origin. This category includes tumors of the paranasal sinuses, the oral cavity, and the nasopharynx, oropharynx, hypopharynx, and larynx. Tumors of the salivary glands differ from the more common carcinomas of the head and neck in etiology, histopathology, clinical presentation, and therapy. They are rare and histologically highly heterogeneous. Thyroid malignancies are described in Chap. 50.


image The number of new cases of head and neck cancers (oral cavity, pharynx, and larynx) in the United States was 53,640 in 2013, accounting for about 3% of adult malignancies; 11,520 people died from the disease. The worldwide incidence exceeds half a million cases annually. In North America and Europe, the tumors usually arise from the oral cavity, oropharynx, or larynx. The incidence of oropharyngeal cancers is increasing in recent years. Nasopharyngeal cancer is more commonly seen in the Mediterranean countries and in the Far East, where it is endemic in some areas.


Alcohol and tobacco use are the most significant risk factors for head and neck cancer, and when used together, they act synergistically. Smokeless tobacco is an etiologic agent for oral cancers. Other potential carcinogens include marijuana and occupational exposures such as nickel refining, exposure to textile fibers, and woodworking.

Some head and neck cancers have a viral etiology. Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infection is frequently associated with nasopharyngeal cancer, especially in endemic areas of the Mediterranean and Far East. EBV antibody titers can be measured to screen high-risk populations. Nasopharyngeal cancer has also been associated with consumption of salted fish and in-door pollution.

In Western countries, the human papilloma virus (HPV) is associated with a rising incidence of tumors arising from the oropharynx, i.e., the tonsillar bed and base of tongue. Over 50% of oropharyngeal tumors are caused by HPV in the United States. HPV 16 is the dominant viral subtype, although HPV 18 and other oncogenic subtypes are seen as well. Alcohol- and tobacco-related cancers, on the other hand, have decreased in incidence. HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer occurs in a younger patient population and is associated with increased numbers of sexual partners and oral sexual practices. It is associated with a better prognosis, especially for nonsmokers.

Dietary factors may contribute. The incidence of head and neck cancer is higher in people with the lowest consumption of fruits and vegetables. Certain vitamins, including carotenoids, may be protective if included in a balanced diet. Supplements of retinoids, such as cis-retinoic acid, have not been shown to prevent head and neck cancers (or lung cancer) and may increase the risk in active smokers. No specific risk factors or environmental carcinogens have been identified for salivary gland tumors.

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