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Head and neck cancers

Patients with suspected head and neck cancers are referred to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

  • Types

    About 90 per cent of head and neck cancers are squamous cell carcinoma.

    These start in the cells that form the lining of the mouth, nose, throat or ear, or the surface layer covering the tongue.

    Cancer can occur in many different areas of the head and neck:

    Other types

    Head and neck cancers can also develop from other types of cells.

    • Lymphomas develop from cells of the lymphatic system.
    • Adenocarcinomas develop from cells that form the lining of glands in the body.
    • Sarcomas develop from cells that make up muscles, cartilage or blood vessels.
    • Melanomas start from cells called melanocytes, which give colour to the eyes and skin.
  • Referral

    If your GP suspects you may have a head or neck cancer, you will be referred to the Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) Department.

  • Investigations and diagnosis

    A number of investigations may be necessary for a diagnosis. These include:

  • Multi-disciplinary team

    The Head and Neck Multi-disciplinary Team (MDT) meets every week to discuss patients who have suspected, recurrent or confirmed head and neck cancer.

    These discussions help the team decide the best treatment plans for patients.

    The team includes a range of specialists, including:

    • ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeons
    • plastic surgeons
    • maxillofacial surgeons
    • clinical nurse specialists
    • radiologists
    • oncologists
    • specialist radiographers
    • speech and language therapists
    • dieticians
    • dental professionals
    • admin staff


    A copy of any discussions will be sent to the patient’s GP.

  • Treatment

    Your treatment options will depend on your diagnosis and the stage of cancer. Your treatment options will be discussed with you in detail.

    Treatment types include:



    Patients having surgery may be asked to meet one of our medical team for a pre-assessment to ensure they are fit for the procedure.

    In some cases, patients are asked to have an anaesthetic assessment. This may require an overnight stay. Do not worry if this happens.

    Our team of specialist nurses will be available to answer any questions.


    You will be asked to sign a consent form before treatment. No medical treatment can be given without patient consent.

    It is important that you read and understand this form before signing it.

  • After treatment

    Recovery is different for everyone and will depend on the type of treatment you have had.

    It will usually take some time to recover from treatment for head or neck cancer.

    There will be emotional changes and long-term effects to deal with, so it’s important that you take time to adjust.


    If you are a smoker, you should try to quit. Smoking is the main cause of head and neck cancers. Continuing to smoke puts you at greater risk of developing a second cancer.

    Smoking may also have a negative effect on your treatment or make the side effects worse.

    Click here for help to stop smoking.


    It’s important to have a nutritious and well-balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, even if your appetite and interest in food has been reduced by treatment.

    Our clinical nurse specialists can refer you to a dietician who will advise on eating well and answer any questions you have.

  • Follow-up

    After your treatment is complete, you will be asked to return to the hospital for follow-up appointments.

    These review appointments allow us to check the progress of your recovery. They are also an opportunity for you to discuss any concerns you may have.

    If you have any problems or notice any new symptoms in between review appointments, contact your GP or specialist doctor.

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