Head and neck cancer

Head and neck cancers include cancers of the tongue, gum, mouth, salivary glands, tonsils, pharynx, nasal cavity and larynx.

Alcohol and tobacco consumption are the biggest risk factors for head and neck cancers, with the exception of salivary gland cancer. Some head and neck cancers are related to human papillomavirus infection.

Choosing to quit smoking can reduce the risk of getting head and neck cancers. Go to the Cancer Council website for more information.

For more information about  the investigations, diagnosis and treatment of head and neck cancers go to the cancer pathway for head and neck cancer on the Cancer Council website.

People at risk

Major causes of head and neck cancer include all of the following:

  • oral sex
  • smoking
  • chewing tobacco and betel nut
  • heavy drinking, particularly in combination with smoking
  • human papillomavirus (HPV).

Early detection and symptoms

There are no early detection screening programs for head and neck cancer.

Your should go to your doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms for more than three weeks:

  • pain or difficulty swallowing
  • persistent sore throat
  • ongoing hoarseness
  • lump in the neck or swelling of the jaw
  • mouth ulcers or a mass in the mouth
  • bleeding from the mouth or throat
  • sores or lesions (red or white spots) in the mouth.

If your doctor suspects you have head and neck cancer they will refer you to a surgeon for more tests.

Diagnosis tests in the NT

Your surgeon will examine you and conduct more tests to determine the stage of cancer.

This can include giving a tissue sample (biopsy) or any of the following image scans:

  • CT
  • MRI
  • bone thyroid scan
  • PET scans.

Tests can be conducted at Royal Darwin Hospital or Alice Springs Hospital.

If you need a thyroid scan or PET scan you will need to travel interstate.

Treatment in the NT

Your surgeon will discuss your treatment with other specialists.

If you live in the Top End your case will be discussed at the Royal Darwin Hospital's head and neck team.

If you live in Central Australia, your surgeon will refer your case to the Royal Darwin Hospital or you will be seen by the Royal Darwin Hospital team when they visit Alice Springs (once a month).

Your treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • surgery
  • radiotherapy
  • chemotherapy.


Surgery may be the best option if your cancer is localised.

Surgery can be performed at Royal Darwin Hospital and Alice Springs Hospital.


This may be the best option if your cancer is not suitable for surgery, or as additional therapy after surgery.

The length of treatment is usually six to eight weeks.

Radiotherapy is available at the Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre in Darwin or you may need to travel interstate.

You may be eligible for help with travel and accommodation costs through the Patient Assistance Travel Scheme.


You may have chemotherapy as well as radiotherapy.

The length of treatment is usually two to three weeks.

Chemotherapy is available at the Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre in Darwin, Alice Springs Hospital or you may need to travel interstate.

Follow up care

You will be checked at least monthly for the first year then every three to six months for five years.

Last updated: 12 April 2021

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