On the cutting edge

Our head and neck cancer doctors use advanced technologies and the latest techniques to give you the comprehensive care you need.

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Head and Neck Cancer

MUSC Hollings Cancer Center knows that you need a comprehensive and highly trained team of specialists to offer innovative head and neck cancer care. Our team of head and neck cancer specialists — including oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, dental specialists, speech pathologists and dermatologists — work together each day to treat patients like you. With a wide range of expertise, we don't just rely on existing treatments. Our head and neck cancer doctors continually search for new and improved ways to meet your needs.

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In good hands

You know you're in good hands at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, the state’s only National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center. Here, you have access to the latest innovations in cancer treatment, including clinical trials, advanced surgical techniques, support services and survivorship planning. You can rest easy knowing we hold national rankings for cancer care and take a leadership role in cancer research and prevention.

The Hollings difference

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancer makes up around 4% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States. There are many cancers related to the head and neck. Typically, head and neck cancers are named after the part of the body they affect. These include:

  • Throat cancer: This includes hypopharyngeal (lower throat) cancer, oropharyngeal (middle of the throat) cancer, and nasopharyngeal (upper throat) cancer.
  • Laryngeal cancer: A cancer of the larynx, also known as the voice box.
  • Oral cavity cancer: This includes cancers that begin in the mouth, lips, tongue, gums and cheeks. 
  • Sinonasal cancer: This includes cancers in the nasal cavity or sinuses.
  • Salivary gland cancer: A cancer starting in the glands responsible for creating saliva, including parotid glands, submandibular glands, sublingual glands and the minor salivary glands.
  • Thyroid cancer and benign thyroid tumors: Growths in the thyroid, an endocrine system gland, may be nodules, benign tumors or cancer. 
  • Parapharyngeal space tumors: Rare tumors that develop in the area beside the throat, known as the parapharyngeal space. These tumors are usually benign but could be cancerous.
  • Parathyroid tumors: These tumors are rarely cancerous but can interfere with calcium levels in the blood, leading to fatigue, bone pain, kidney stones and gastrointestinal problems. 
  • Advanced skin cancer: Skin cancers are usually managed by a dermatologist or dermatologist surgeon. However, if they spread extensively, especially if they begin to affect nearby structures or lymph nodes, then the head and neck cancer team will provide its expertise in managing these conditions. 

Have more questions about head and neck cancer? Check out our answers to common questions.

Head and neck cancer symptoms

Some of the most common cancers of the head and neck start off in cells called squamous cells. These cells line the mucous membranes on the inside surfaces of your mouth, nose, and throat. If you have neck cancer or head cancer, you may experience any of these related symptoms:

  • Pain when swallowing
  • Pain in your neck or throat that doesn’t go away
  • Swelling in or around your jaw
  • Unusual patches in or around your mouth and tongue
  • Constant pain or ringing in your ears
  • Trouble hearing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Trouble speaking
  • Blocked sinuses that do not clear
  • Constant sinus infections
  • Nose bleeds
  • Swelling in your eyes
  • Pain or paralysis in your face muscles or neck

I can’t control what happens in the future. I have no way of knowing if that cancer is coming back. What I can control is what I do now. I can try and remain healthy and active in the event I have to battle cancer again someday.

Bruce Dales, adenoid cystic carcinoma survivor

Bruce's story
Bruce Dales stands with his bike

I’m living proof that if cancer research didn’t exist, I probably wouldn’t be here. That’s why I believe it’s important to continue conducting research to keep discovering more modernized ways to combat cancer.

Tony Pesavento, laryngeal cancer survivor

Tony's story
Tony Pesavento stands outside


Our team of head and neck cancer specialists prides itself on offering you innovative care and developing treatment plans specific to your needs.

Head and neck cancer treatment

Dr. John Kaczmar talks with a colleague

With early detection and proper treatment, head and neck cancers are curable. Hollings offers you state-of-the-art treatment close to home. Using the latest advancements, our head and neck cancer specialists at the MUSC Health Wendy and Keith Wellin Head and Neck Clinic will come up with a comprehensive and individualized treatment plan for you.

Head and neck cancer treatment involves a wide range of doctors and specialists to achieve the best outcomes. Your treatment may include some of the following options:

Radiation therapy for head and neck cancer

Minimally invasive surgery for head and neck cancer

  • Transoral robotic surgery of the mouth, throat and voice box.
  • Minimally invasive surgery for tumors of the thyroid, parathyroid, mouth, throat and base of the skull.

Systemic therapy for head and neck cancer

  • Tailored radiation sensitizing chemotherapy to help increase treatment success.
  • Immunotherapy to harness your body's own immune system to control advanced head and neck cancers.

Refer a head and neck cancer patient

To refer a head and neck cancer patient to Hollings, please call patient referral coordinator SanJuanita "Nita" Foster at 843-985-0581.

Support team members

Our head and neck cancer nurse navigator, Savannah A. Zimmerman, MA, BSN, RN, CCTC, will help you understand what to expect during treatment and answer questions you may have. Our team also includes a nutrition expert, Mary Jo Turner, RD, and a speech-language pathologist, Julie Blair, MA, CCC-SLP, to support you as needed.

Multidisciplinary Support

Head and neck cancers may threaten your vision, speech, hearing, ability to control facial expressions — all key components of your identity and sense of self. To help with these unique challenges, we use a coordinated and multidisciplinary approach to provide care and support during and after your treatment. Our team includes specialists in:

  • Behavioral medicine
  • Financial counseling
  • Head and neck pathology
  • Maxillofacial prosthodontics
  • Neuroradiology
  • Nutrition
  • Oral maxillofacial surgery
  • Physical therapy
  • Speech language pathology

Other support resources include:

Maxillofacial Prosthodontics

The MUSC Health Maxillofacial Prosthodontic Clinic, adjacent to the Wellin Clinic, is seamlessly integrated with our multidisciplinary head and neck cancer team. This includes collaboration with head and neck surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, radiation oncology, medical oncology, speech and language pathology, and other support staffs. Our comprehensive approach allows for personalized treatment and optimized outcomes.

Our clinic team creates prosthetic eyes, ears, noses, teeth, jaws, and palates that greatly improve function and quality of life. Additionally, our team specializes in designing and surgically placing endosteal implants used in the rehabilitation of complicated intraoral and facial defects.

Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing

Specialists in voice, speech and swallowing disorders from the MUSC Health Evelyn Trammell Institute for Voice and Swallowing work closely with our head and neck cancer surgeons. Using the most advanced techniques, these specialists help you to regain speech and improve swallowing following surgery.

a doctor stands in front of radiation oncology equipment

Our Head and Neck Cancer Program has a robust research portfolio with over $4 million annually in National Institutes of Health (NIH) research support. There are 7 NIH-funded basic science, translational, and clinical researchers focused on head and neck cancer. These researchers are studying new targets and therapies to decrease morbidity and mortality from head and neck cancer, identifying molecular signatures to help predict which patients will respond to therapy, developing new care delivery methods to improve quality, equity, and access to timely head and neck cancer care, and advancing our ability to rehabilitate head and neck cancer survivors and support their caregivers.

Recent projects include:

In addition, Hollings’ dedicated Head & Neck Transdisciplinary Cancer Team brings together expertise from different disciplines in basic and clinical research for monthly meetings to collaborate on ongoing head and neck cancer research.

As South Carolina’s only NCI-designated cancer center, Hollings offers you clinical trials and treatments that aren’t available anywhere else in the state. These opportunities provide you with access to the latest medications, therapies, and surgical techniques that can improve your outcomes. Many of these cutting edge head and neck cancer clinical trials were developed by Hollings doctors and researchers, and they offer patients with head and neck cancer access to exciting new therapies. Learn more about clinical trials at Hollings and see our current head and neck cancer clinical trials.

Our team of head and neck cancer specialists prides itself on offering you innovative care and developing treatment plans specific to your needs.

Dr. Katie Schmitt guides a patient doing a physical therapy exercise with a metal bar

Support from start to finish

We pride ourselves on our holistic approach to cancer care. We offer you many resources to help you throughout your cancer journey, including financial counseling, physical therapy, nutrition services, and support groups.

Patient Resources

Head and neck cancer care locations

Head & Neck Center at Hollings

Hollings Cancer Center

86 Jonathan Lucas Street

Charleston, SC 29425

Head & Neck Center Rutledge

135 Rutledge Avenue

Charleston, SC 29425

Hematology Oncology Florence

Florence Medical Center

Medical Mall A

805 Pamplico Highway

Suite: 315

Florence, SC 29505

Scheduling: 843-792-9300

Head and neck cancer causes & risk factors

While the cause of all head and neck cancers isn’t yet known, some risk factors are known. These will vary by the type of cancer:

  • Tobacco use: Smoking, or chewing, tobacco is one of the leading risk factors for developing head and neck cancers. If you smoke or chew tobacco, you are at a much higher risk than those who don’t. Smoking is one of the leading causes of throat cancer. Visit our smoking cessation page to learn more about how we can help you quit.
  • Alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing head and neck cancers.
  • Gender: Men are much more likely to develop head and neck cancer. This may be attributed to men being more likely to smoke or chew tobacco.
  • HPV: The number of head and neck cancers linked to human papillomavirus (HPV) infection has been on the rise in the last few decades.
  • Age: Most head and neck cancers occur in people over 55, except cancers related to HPV.
  • Diet: There is some evidence linking head and neck cancers to diets relatively low in fruits and vegetables.
  • Genetics: Certain genetic syndromes (fanconi anemia, dyskeratosis congentia, multiple endocrine neoplasia type I, hyperparathyroidism-jaw tumor syndrome) lead to a much higher risk of developing a head and neck cancer.
  • Workplace exposure: Sinonasal cancers may be linked to breathing in certain substances, such as wood dust, leather dust, flour dust, nickel dust or chromium dust. 

Head and neck cancer prevention

To lower your risk of developing head and neck cancer:

  • Stop, or never start, using any form of tobacco product. If you need help quitting, Hollings offers smoking cessation services.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption.
  • Protect your children by ensuring they get the HPV vaccine, and talk to your doctor about whether it makes sense for you to get the vaccine. The HPV vaccine works best when given at a young age before exposure to HPV.
  • Get screened. Make sure your dentist or primary care doctor perform routine checks for anything out of the ordinary. If you need further evaluation, our team of specialists has various ways to screen for head and neck cancer, including a comprehensive exam and innovative digitally recorded endoscopic video imaging.
HPV is a group of more than 150 related viruses

Protect yourself from HPV

The HPV vaccine can prevent six types of cancer in both men and women, including cancers in the back of the throat. The HPV vaccine is typically given to children, but people up to the age of 45 may be eligible. Talk with your doctor for more information.

HPV vaccination

Head and neck cancer statistics

According to the American Cancer Society, here are some of the most notable statistics regarding head and neck cancer:

  • Men have a 1 in 59 chance and women a 1 in 139 chance of being diagnosed with an oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer.
  • The American Cancer Society anticipates 58,450 new diagnoses of oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer in 2024. 
  • The death rate for oropharyngeal cancer increased by 2% per year between 2009 and 2021. 
  • About 12,650 people will be diagnosed with laryngeal cancer in 2024. 
  • About 6-8% of all head and neck cancers are salivary gland cancers - or about 2,000 to 2,500 cases in the U.S.
  • About 3-5% of all head and neck cancers are nasal cavity or paranasal sinus cancer. 

Common questions about head and neck cancer

Have you or a loved one received a head and neck cancer diagnosis? You probably have many questions. There’s a lot of information to take in after a cancer diagnosis. Your doctor can answer questions specific to your care, but we have compiled a list of some of the most common questions for your reference below.

If detected and treated early, cancers of the head and neck can typically be cured.

The survival rate for head and neck cancer can vary depending upon the type of cancer and the stage. Catching a cancer early improves the chance of survival.

If you notice a new lump in your neck or a new sore in your mouth that does not go away over a period of a few weeks, this could be a sign of head and neck cancer. If you develop hoarseness, swallowing difficulties or pain that radiates to your ear, these could all be signs of head and neck cancer. It is best to have these symptoms checked by your doctor.

Squamous cell carcinoma (cancer) of the oral cavity and pharynx (throat) are the most common cancers of the head and neck.

Squamous cells line the mucous membranes on the inside surfaces of your mouth, nose, and throat. Squamous cell carcinomas are cancers that develop in these cells. This is the most common type of cancer affecting the head and neck.


Latest head and neck cancer news