Some patients with head and neck cancer first show up to a doctor’s office because they feel a “swollen gland” or lump in the neck. It is important to note that a lump in the neck is not necessarily cancer. Lymph nodes can be enlarged for many reasons, including inflammation and infection. Also, there are several benign (non-cancerous) tumours that can be discovered in the neck (e.g., schwannomas, neurofibromas, paragangliomas and others). Most lumps in the neck are not cancer. However, if a lump doesn’t go away after about two weeks, particularly if your doctor has tried some type of treatment, it’s worth getting it checked out by a specialist. The term “neck cancer” is not a very specific term. In most cases it refers to cancer cells that have spread into lymph nodes within the neck from a primary tumour site.
These are called metastatic lymph nodes. Just about any cancer in the head and neck region can spread into lymph nodes in the neck.
More rarely, cancers from another part of your body can also spread to the neck. When cancers from parts of the body spread to the neck, the neck mass is usually in the lower part of the neck just above the collarbones.
Cancers such as lymphomas and sarcomas can start in the neck, and they are treated somewhat differently.
Thyroid cancers start in the thyroid gland and are considered separately.