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Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma

A headshot of a grey-haired Caucasian man, looking pensively off into the distance.

If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, you may be trying to learn as much as possible about the disease and its treatments. Read on to find out more.

The information on this website should be discussed with your healthcare professional and does not replace their advice.

What is head and neck squamous cell carcinoma?

Head and neck cancer is a general term for cancers that start in the head and neck area. Most of these cancers begin in the moist lining of the mouth, nose or throat and are known as squamous cell carcinomas.

Head and neck cancers are more common in men than in women. They are named according to the area in which they start.

Head and neck cancers include:

  • Mouth cancers. Cancer that starts in the mouth (lips and oral cavity).
  • Throat (pharyngeal) cancers. Cancer that starts in the throat or pharynx.
  • Voice box (laryngeal) cancers. Cancer that starts in the voice box or larynx.
  • Nose cancers. Cancer that starts in the nasal cavity and sinuses.
  • Salivary gland cancers. Cancer that starts in the glands which make saliva.

Cancers that start in the brain, eyes, oesophagus (food pipe), trachea (windpipe) or thyroid (a gland producing hormones) are not considered head and neck cancers.

Treatment with KEYTRUDA® (pembrolizumab)

Your doctor will plan your treatment according to your individual circumstances. These include your type and stage of cancer, its location and your general health and life priorities.

KEYTRUDA is an immunotherapy that may be used to treat head and neck squamous cell carcinoma when it has spread or returned and cannot be removed by surgery:

  • If your tumour tests positive for PD-L1 and KEYTRUDA is your first treatment; or
  • In combination with chemotherapy as your first treatment; or
  • When you have received chemotherapy that contains platinum and it did not work or is no longer working.

Talk to your doctor to see if KEYTRUDA may be right for you.

KEYTRUDA is not funded in New Zealand for the treatment of patients with head and neck squamous
cell carcinoma.


Expand for more information on terms and definitions related to head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

Terms you may find useful:

The most common type of cancer. It is formed by epithelial cells. These cells cover the inside and outside of our body – for example, the lining of the mouth, nose or throat.

Larynx or voice box
This contains the vocal cords and connects the throat and windpipe.

Nasal cavity
The hollow space behind the nose.

Oral cavity
The mouth (including gums, cheek linings, mouth roof and floor, most of the tongue and the area behind the wisdom teeth).

A doctor who specialises in treating cancer with drug therapies – for example, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

A protein that may protect cancer cells from being detected by the immune system.

The expected outcome of your cancer, which is best discussed with your doctor who can tell you your general outlook but is unable to predict the course of your disease exactly.

Pharynx or throat
Hollow tube that connects the mouth and nose with the windpipe (trachea) and food pipe (oesophagus).

A new or abnormal growth of tissue on or in the body. Tumours can be benign (not cancerous) or malignant (cancerous).

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Questions to ask your doctor

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Patient Resources


Cancer Council Australia. 2021. Understanding Head and Neck Cancers. A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends.
Available at:
Accessed on 25/05/2022


KEYTRUDA Consumer Medicine Information

National Cancer Institute. 2021. What is Cancer?
Available at:
Accessed on 01/09/2023

National Cancer Institute. Dictionary of Cancer Terms. PD-L1.
Available at:
Accessed on 25/8/2020

NZ-KEY-00877. TAPS DA 2339KN TAPS NP20132. First Issued February 2024.