The mouth, throat, nose and ears

Head and neck cancers include cancers in the mouth, tongue, throat, nose, sinuses, salivary glands and middle ear.

Areas of the head and neck

Head and neck cancers are named after the part of the body they start in. For example:

If you are not sure which type of head and neck cancer you have ask your cancer doctor or specialist nurse.

Head and neck cancers can develop in the following areas.

The mouth

The mouth (oral cavity) includes the:

  • lips
  • tongue (front two-thirds)
  • floor of the mouth 
  • inside the cheek 
  • roof of the mouth (the hard palate)
  • area behind the wisdom teeth
  • upper and lower gums.

    The most common places for mouth cancer to develop are on the floor of the mouth and side of the tongue. 

  • The mouth and tongue

    The tongue

    The tongue has two parts (see diagram above). The front part is the part you can see and it makes up two-thirds of the tongue. The back part, which you cannot see, is very close to the throat. We have more information about tongue cancer.

    The throat (pharynx)

    The throat is divided into three main parts:

  • Nasopharynx
    This is the upper part of the pharynx behind the nose. Cancer that develops here is called nasopharyngeal cancer
  • Oropharynx
    This is the middle part of the pharynx behind the mouth. It includes the soft part of the roof of the mouth (soft palate), the base or the back of the tongue (part you cannot see), the tonsils and the side walls of the throat. The most common places for oropharyngeal cancer to develop are on the tonsils and the base of the tongue.
  • Hypopharynx
    This is the lower part of the pharynx behind the voice box. Cancers that develop here are called hypopharyngeal cancers. 

  • The head and neck labelled

    The nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses

    The space inside the nose is called the nasal cavity. This space warms, moistens and filters air as you breathe in.

    The bones around the nasal cavity have small hollow spaces in them called paranasal sinuses. These sinuses affect the sound and tone of your voice.

    Cancer that starts inside the nose or paranasal sinuses is called nasal and sinus cancerHead and neck labelled

    The salivary glands

    The salivary glands make saliva (spit). This keeps your mouth moist and helps food slide down the gullet into the stomach. The biggest pairs of salivary glands are:

    • parotid glands, which are at the sides of the mouth, just in front of the ears
    • submandibular glands, which are under each side of the jawbone
    • sublingual glands, which are under the floor or the mouth and below each side of the tongue.

    There are many more tiny glands in the lining of the nose, mouth and throat. These are known as the minor salivary glands.

    The most common place for salivary gland cancer to start is in the parotid glands.



    Salivary glands labelled

    The ears

    The middle ear is made up of the eardrum and a cavity called the tympanum. The tympanum contains three small bones – the malleus, incus and stapes. These bones connect the eardrum to the inner ear.

    The tympanum is connected to the nasopharynx by a tube called the Eustachian tube.

    It is rare for cancer to develop in the middle ear. A diagram of the ear

    About our information

    • Reviewers

      This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Senior Medical Editor, Dr Chris Alcock, Consultant Clinical Oncologist.

      Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.