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Cancer Snapshots: Disease Focused and Other Snapshots

  • Posted: 12/02/2013

A Snapshot of Head and Neck Cancer

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 began decreasing 30 years ago and stabilized in 2003, whereas overall mortality rates have steadily declined. Notably, the incidence of head and neck cancer 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. Additionally, infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) 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 include radiation therapy and surgery, and for certain types of head and neck cancer, chemotherapy.

It is estimated that approximately $3.6 billion1 is spent in the United States each year on treatment for head and neck cancers.

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

Examples of NCI Activities Relevant to Head and Neck Cancer

Selected Advances in Head and Neck Cancer Research

Pie chart of NCI Head and Neck Cancers Research Portfolio.  Percentage of total dollars by scientific area.  Fiscal year 2012.  Biology, 10%.  Etiology/causes of cancer, 13%.  Prevention, 11%.  Early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis, 14%.  Treatment, 36%.  Cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes research, 13%.  Scientific model systems, 3%.
  • The combination of erlotinib and celecoxib significantly inhibited head and neck cancer cell growth in preclinical models and induced responses in some patients with advanced precancerous oral lesions. Published February 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Preventing the destruction of the tumor suppressor protein p53 in HPV-positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma cells promoted apoptosis and cell cycle arrest. Published February 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • A statistical approach known as group-based trajectory modeling can be used to identify subgroups of patients with head and neck cancer who may experience high symptom burden while undergoing aggressive, nonsurgical therapy. Published March 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Antibodies against HPV may help identify individuals who are at greatly increased risk of HPV-related cancer of the oropharynx. Published June 2013. [PubMed Abstract]
  • See this PubMed list of selected free full-text journal articles on NCI-supported research relevant to head and neck cancer. You can also search PubMed for additional scientific articles or to complete a search tutorial.

Trends in NCI Funding for Head and Neck Cancer Research

The National Cancer Institute's (NCI) investment2 in head and neck cancer3 research increased from $76.1 million in fiscal year (FY) 2008 to $77.1 million in FY 2009 before decreasing to $65.0 million in FY 2012. In addition to this funding, NCI supported $13.8 million in head and neck cancer research in FY 2009 and FY 2010 using funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Bar graph of NCI Head and Neck Cancer Research Investment in 2008-2012: Fiscal year (FY) 2008, $76.1 million Head and Neck Cancers Funding of $4.83 billion Total NCI Budget. FY 2009, $77.1 million of $4.97 billion Total NCI Budget. FY 2010, $62.7 million of $5.10 billion Total NCI Budget. FY 2011, $61.8 million of $5.06 billion Total NCI Budget.  FY 2012, $65.0 million of $5.07 billion Total NCI Budget.

Additional Resources for Head and Neck Cancer


  • 1 Cancer Trends Progress Report, in 2010 dollars.
  • 2 The estimated NCI investment is based on funding associated with a broad range of peer-reviewed scientific activities. For additional information on research planning and budgeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), see About NIH.
  • 3 FY 2008–2009 head and neck cancer funding includes thyroid cancer funding.

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