Health information

What is cancer?

Approximately one in three people will be affected by cancer at some stage in their lives. Cancer is not one disease, but many. As well as having some similar features, each cancer will have a distinctive character, which varies according to its type and location.

The human body is made up of millions of cells, which grow and divide to replace old tissue and maintain the body. Each part of your body is composed of cells, which are shaped and designed for that area. Usually, cells in the body are replaced by identical new ones when they wear out.

When things go wrong, some of the new cells are different. They begin to multiply and form a tumour or lump. This lump could be benign or malignant. Benign tumours are usually harmless and sometimes do not need treatment. Malignant tumours are cancerous. What causes cancer and how quickly the cells grow and spread, is different from person to person.

There are different types of cancer and there are many different treatments for cancer, depending on the stage and type of cancer you have and your general health. Because advances in cancer care and treatment are being made all the time, what you, your family or friends think now may necessarily not be correct or up to date. In the first instance you should consult your GP if you are unsure about something you have heard or read about. If he or she feels that a little further investigation would be a wise step they will refer you to a specialist.

Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancer is cancer that starts in the head and neck area. There are many different types of cancer that can affect this area. The majority of these are called squamous cell carcinomas. These start in the moist lining of the mouth and nose. Head and neck cancer can affect talking, eating, chewing, swallowing and also your sense of smell and taste.

Head and neck cancer can be called by many names - here are Just a few:

Throat cancer

Oral cancer (includes lips, tongue, mouth, palate)

Salivary gland cancer

Nose and sinus cancer

Thyroid cancer

Eye cancer

Skin cancer on the face

Cancer risk factors


Alcohol excess

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

Excess sun exposure (for skin cancer)