Head Neck Cancers

Head and Neck Cancers

Download the resources:

PDF-Small.png Head and neck cancer 

PDF-Small.png Laryngeal (voice box) cancer

PDF-Small.png Throat (oropharyngeal) cancer 

PDF-Small.png Thyroid cancer 

PDF-Small.png Oral cancer 

Know the warning signs, find it early to increase treatment success


When found early, most cancers in the head and neck can be treated successfully. Recovery rates for these cancers could be greatly improved if people sought medical advice as soon as possible. If you think you have one of the warning signs of head and neck cancer, see your doctor right away.

Here’s what you should watch for...

A lump in your neck

Cancers that begin in the head and neck often spread to the lymph nodes in the neck before they spread elsewhere. A lump in your neck that lasts more than 3 weeks should be seen by your GP. Not all lumps are cancer but it could be the first sign of cancer of the mouth, throat, voice box or thyroid gland. It could also be from a cancer on your skin that has already been removed. These lumps are usually painless and grow steadily.

Change in your voice

Most cancers in the larynx (voice box) cause some change in your voice. Any hoarseness or other voice change lasting more than 3 weeks should alert you to see your GP.

A growth in your mouth

Many cancers of the mouth or tongue cause a sore or swelling that doesn’t go away. They may be painless, they may bleed and they may become infected.

An ulcer under a denture that does not heal may also be a concern.

Swallowing problems

Cancer of the throat may make swallowing food and fluid difficult or painful. Food may ‘stick’ at a certain point and might eventually go down to your stomach or come back up.

Changes in your skin

Skin cancers are common in New Zealand due to our high levels of UV light.

The most common head and neck cancer is basal cell cancer of the skin. These are usually easy to treat.

Other kinds of cancer, including squamous cell cancer and malignant melanoma, also occur on the skin of the face and neck. Many squamous cell cancers occur on the lower lip and ear.

Sometimes they can come back even after they have been treated. They often come back as lumps in the neck or around the ears.

If you have a sore that does not heal on your lip, face, scalp or ear or you notice a lump or lumps in the neck that are not healing, see your GP immediately.


The above information is kindly provided and reproduced with permission from:

Canterbury District Health Board   


Otolaryngology Head & Neck Department, Christchurch Hospital

If you have any questions on any cancer you can call the Cancer Society Cancer Information Helpline on 0800 226 237

Canterbury DHB, September 2016

HPV related Head and Neck Cancers


What causes throat cancer?

Studies in New Zealand and in the US show that HPV causes most throat cancers. It is recommended that throat tumours be tested for HPV.

Smoking and alcohol can also cause throat cancer.

How did I get an oral HPV infection?

HPV is transmitted to your mouth by oral sex. It may also be possible to get oral HPV in other ways. An increased number of oral sex partners increases your chances of catching an oral HPV infection. If you find out that you have an oral HPV infection, it does not necessarily mean that your partner was/is unfaithful or has had a large number of sexual partners. Many people with throat HPV cancer have only had a few oral sex partners.

Who has oral HPV infection?

Genital HPV is so common that anyone who gives oral sex may be exposed to oral HPV during their life. HPV statistics in the United States show that around 10% of men and 3.6% of women have HPV in their mouths at any given time. Most people will clear the HPV infection on their own within a year, but in some people the HPV infection persists.

Can I transmit oral HPV to others?

Family and friends

Oral HPV is not casually transmitted by sharing drinks with people or kissing on cheeks. It isn’t known yet if open-mouth kissing can transmit HPV.

Partners of people with throat cancer

If one partner has an HPV infection then the other partner is likely to have been exposed to the infection. You do not need to change your intimate sexual contact if you discover that one or both of you has HPV.

Partners with a cervix, inclusive of those who identify as men (transmen), should continue to have regular cervical (PAP) screening as usual.

New sexual partners in the future

Many people with HPV throat cancer have no HPV detectable in their mouth after treatment, while others do. With new partners, discuss protection methods (eg. vaccination, condoms, dental dams or barrier protection).

When did I get this infection?

It is impossible to know the time from first oral HPV infection to cancer, but it takes many years. Therefore, it is not possible to know when and from whom the infection was acquired.

HPV is common and the great majority of people who acquire it will clear the infection and never have any evidence of having had an infection.

What does having HPV in a tumour mean?

People with throat cancer, with HPV in their tumour, live longer on average than people without HPV (i.e. HPV-positive tumours usually respond well to therapy). However, people who smoke tobacco or have smoked for a long time in the past do not live as long, on average, as people who have never smoked. Current smokers are strongly encouraged to stop. Help is available.

Will the HPV vaccine help me?

The HPV vaccine offers best protection from HPV if given before becoming sexually active. For people who are already sexually active, the vaccine may still be of benefit as it will prevent you from getting new HPV infections from the HPV strains the vaccine covers. The vaccine will not help clear an infection that you already have.

Will my partner also get throat cancer?

The risk of HPV throat cancer may be slightly higher among partners of people with HPV throat cancer, but this cancer remains extremely rare among partners.

Unlike for cervical cancer, there is no current effective screening test for HPV-related throat cancer.

HPV and throat cancer pamphlet

HPV and Throat Cancer: Common Questions and Answers. A brochure for people with HPV-positive throat cancer and their families

PDF-Small.png Best for reading on a screen (computer, smart phone etc)

PDF-Small.png Best for printing


Head and Neck Cancer Support Network

People affected by head and neck cancer can find advocacy, connection and support in the Head and Neck Cancer Support Network where they offer a range of supportive services including online groups, support groups and resources. (http://headandneck.org.nz/)

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