A Snapshot of Head and Neck Cancer

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Incidence and Mortality

Cancers of the head and neck, which include cancers of the oral cavity, larynx, pharynx, salivary glands, and nose/nasal passages, account for approximately three percent of all malignancies in the United States. Overall incidence for cancers of the oral cavity and pharynx began decreasing 30 years ago and stabilized in 2003. The overall incidence for cancers of the larynx has been decreasing each year since 1988. Overall mortality rates for head and neck cancers have declined since 2001. Notably, the incidence of head and neck cancers in African Americans has declined over the past two decades and is now lower than that in whites. The mortality rate also has decreased among African Americans but is still higher than that in whites.

Tobacco and alcohol use are the most important risk factors for most head and neck cancers. In addition, infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), particularly HPV type 16 (HPV16) and HPV type 18 (HPV18), causes more than half of all cases of oropharyngeal cancer, a type of head and neck cancer. There are no standard or routine screening tests for head and neck cancers. Standard treatments for head and neck cancers, which depend on the tumor location, the tumor stage, and the patient’s age and overall health, include radiation therapy, surgery, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, or a combination of treatments.

Assuming that incidence and survival rates follow recent trends, it is estimated that $3.6 billion1 will be spent on head and neck cancer care in the United States in 2014.

Line graphs showing U.S. Head and Neck Cancer Incidence and mortality per 100,000, by race and ethnicity.  Incidence from 1991-2011 and mortality from 1990-2010 is shown. In 2011, American Indians/Alaska natives have the highest incidence, followed by whites, African Americans,  Hispanics, and Asians/Pacific Islanders. In 2010, African Americans have the highest mortality, followed by American Indians/Alaska natives, whites, Asians/Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics.

Source: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program and the National Center for Health Statistics. Additional statistics and charts are available at the SEER Web site.

NCI’s Investment in Head and Neck Cancer Research

To learn more about the research NCI conducts and supports in head and neck cancer, visit the NCI Funded Research Portfolio (NFRP). The NFRP includes information about research grants, contract awards, and intramural research projects funded by NCI. When exploring this information, it should be noted that approximately half of the NCI budget supports basic research that may not be specific to one type of cancer. By its nature, basic research cuts across many disease areas, contributing to our knowledge of the underlying biology of cancer and enabling the research community to make advances against many cancer types. For these reasons, the funding levels reported in NFRP may not definitively report all research relevant to a given category.

Pie chart of NCI Head and Neck Cancers Research Portfolio.  Percentage of total dollars by scientific area.  Fiscal year 2013.  Biology, 10%.  Etiology/causes of cancer, 12%.  Prevention, 9%.  Early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis, 14%.  Treatment, 36%.  Cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes research, 15%.  Scientific model systems, 4%.

Source: NCI Funded Research Portfolio. Only projects with assigned common scientific outline area codes are included. A description of relevant research projects can be found on the NCI Funded Research Portfolio Web site.

Other NCI programs and activities relevant to head and neck cancer include:

Selected Advances in Head and Neck Cancer Research

  • Antibodies against HPV16 were found in blood samples from patients who developed oropharyngeal cancer more than 10 years after the sample was obtained, suggesting that the antibodies may identify those at increased risk of this cancer. Published June 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • In a randomized trial, a vaccine that prevents cervical infection with HPV types 16 and 18 was also highly effective in preventing oral infection with HPV types 16 and 18, suggesting that HPV vaccination may protect against oral HPV infections and possibly prevent HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers. Published July 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • An integrated proteomic-genomic analysis of tumors from HNSCC patients identified a subset of tumors with mutations that correlate with higher levels of the activated tumor promoting protein STAT3, suggesting that inhibition of the STAT3 pathway may be a potential therapeutic strategy for treating HNSCC patients with these mutations. Published January 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • A noninvasive imaging tool that detects chemical changes in cellular metabolism, which can be disrupted by some cancer treatments, detected early responses to targeted drugs and chemotherapy in head and neck cancer cell lines. Early detection of drug efficacy could reduce toxicities, costs, and time associated with ineffective therapy. Published March 2014. [PubMed Abstract]

Additional Resources for Head and Neck Cancer


  • Posted: November 5, 2014