Head & Neck Cancer

Introduction & Staging

Several cancer types fall under the category of head and neck cancer: oral (mouth), pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), sinus and nasal, thyroid and salivary gland. These areas are integral to some of our most vital functions. Depending on your diagnosis, your treatment may also affect your appearance. Therefore, it is critical to surround yourself with a medical team and support community that will help you navigate the road ahead.

Your doctor will order a variety of tests to diagnose and learn about your cancer. Those tests may include a physical exam, imaging studies, blood tests, genomic tests, tissue biopsy or liquid biopsy. Your doctor will be looking for the tumor’s location and size, whether it has spread to lymph nodes or other organs, any biomarkers, and the type or subtype of the cancer.

Next, your cancer will be classified and staged according to the TNM system developed by the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC). This system classifies the cancer by tumor (T), node (N) and metastasis (M). The T category describes the size and location of the primary tumor. The N category indicates whether the lymph nodes show evidence of cancer cells. The number and location of these lymph nodes are important because they show how far the disease has spread. The M category describes metastasis (spread of cancer to another part of the body), if any.

In certain cancers, the stage is also determined by other factors. For throat cancer, the presence of human papillomavirus (HPV) and the location of the cancer cells are considered. For thyroid cancer, the subtype of cancer and age of the patient influence the stage. This information helps your doctor determine the best treatment options for you.

Be aware that the stage of your cancer may change. If your cancer returns after treatment, diagnostic tests may be repeated to reassess your stage. This is known as restaging. If a new stage is assigned, it is often preceded by an “r” to denote that it has been restaged.