Head and neck cancer

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Head and neck cancer actually includes many different malignancies. 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 on the vocal cords behave very differently than do those that arise in the back of tongue, just an inch or less from the vocal cords.


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The most common type of cancer in the head and neck is squamous cell carcinoma, which arises in the cells that line the inside of the nose, mouth and throat. Other less common types of head and neck cancers include salivary gland tumors, lymphomas and sarcomas.

Cancers spread in three 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 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.

The lymph nodes most commonly involved are located along major blood vessels underneath the sternocleidomastoid muscle on each side of the neck, particularly the internal jugular vein node at the angle of the jaw. The risk of spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream is closely related to whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the neck, how many nodes are involved, and their location in the neck. The risk is higher if cancer is in lymph nodes in the lower part of the neck rather than only in those located in the upper neck.

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