Most head and neck cancers are derived from the mucosal epithelium in the oral cavity, pharynx and larynx and are known collectively as head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC). Oral cavity and larynx cancers are generally associated with tobacco consumption, alcohol abuse or both, whereas pharynx cancers are increasingly attributed to infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), primarily HPV-16. Thus, HNSCC can be separated into HPV-negative and HPV-positive HNSCC. Despite evidence of histological progression from cellular atypia through various degrees of dysplasia, ultimately leading to invasive HNSCC, most patients are diagnosed with late-stage HNSCC without a clinically evident antecedent pre-malignant lesion. Traditional staging of HNSCC using the tumour–node–metastasis system has been supplemented by the 2017 AJCC/UICC staging system, which incorporates additional information relevant to HPV-positive disease. Treatment is generally multimodal, consisting of surgery followed by chemoradiotherapy (CRT) for oral cavity cancers and primary CRT for pharynx and larynx cancers. The EGFR monoclonal antibody cetuximab is generally used in combination with radiation in HPV-negative HNSCC where comorbidities prevent the use of cytotoxic chemotherapy. The FDA approved the immune checkpoint inhibitors pembrolizumab and nivolumab for treatment of recurrent or metastatic HNSCC and pembrolizumab as primary treatment for unresectable disease. Elucidation of the molecular genetic landscape of HNSCC over the past decade has revealed new opportunities for therapeutic intervention. Ongoing efforts aim to integrate our understanding of HNSCC biology and immunobiology to identify predictive biomarkers that will enable delivery of the most effective, least-toxic therapies.
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