Causes of Head and Neck Cancer

The precise causes of head and neck cancer are unknown. Cancer can develop when the squamous cells that form the surface (epithelium) above the moist tissue layer (mucosa) of the head and neck structures undergo changes that cause the cells to grow and divide at an unusually rapid pace. The resulting accumulation of cells can then bind together to form tumors, which are sometimes malignant. In most cases, these cellular changes can be attributed to prolonged exposure to specific carcinogens. Most notably, researchers believe that tobacco use and alcohol consumption are strong contributing factors, both of which are entirely preventable.

While tobacco use – more specifically, exposure to the toxins present in smoke emitted by cigarettes, cigars and pipes – is often associated with lung cancer, it is the high nicotine content in tobacco used in any form, including chewable products, that is believed to cause cancerous lesions in the head and neck. Carcinogens like nicotine are believed to be leading causes of head and neck cancer because:

  • Exposure can irritate the epithelium and lead to mutations in the squamous cells
  • The resulting mutations can change the way the squamous cells grow, causing them to divide and reproduce at a much faster rate than normal
  • The rapidly growing cells can eventually form a malignant tumor, which can continue to grow as more cells accumulate in the mass
  • Because carcinogens can damage the epithelium and mucosa, the toxins can potentially enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body

Moffitt Cancer Center is at the forefront of head and neck cancer research. Through ongoing studies, our scientists are continuing to learn more about how these cancers develop, as well as how they can be prevented and treated. Our progress has gained national recognition, and we’ve earned the distinction of being named a Comprehensive Cancer Center by the National Cancer Institute – the only one based in Florida.

If you’d like to learn more about the causes of head and neck cancer, the experts at Moffitt can help. Call 1-888-MOFFITT or complete a new patient registration form online. No referrals are required.