What is Unknown Primary Head and Neck Cancer?

Unknown Primary Head and Neck Cancer occurs when malignant (cancerous) squamous cells spread to the lymph nodes in the neck or around the collarbone.

Squamous cells, which look like thin, flat cells that resemble fish scales, are found in many of the body’s tissues, including the skin, respiratory tract and lining of the paranasal sinuses and nasal cavity. Cancer can develop in squamous cells that are anywhere in the body and can metastasize, or spread, to other parts of the body through blood or the lymph system.

If you are diagnosed with a Head and Neck Cancer, your doctor will locate where in your body the cancer began, which is called the primary tumor. For example, if lung cancer spreads to the neck, the cancer cells in the neck are lung cancer cells and are treated the same as the cancer in the lung.

If the primary tumor cannot be located, this is called Unknown Primary Head and Neck Cancer (sometimes referred to as metastatic squamous neck cancers).

Prognosis and treatment options vary depending on each person’s own genetic makeup, location of the cancer cells and the stage of the cancer.

Miami Cancer Institute’s head and neck cancer specialists combine world-recognized medical expertise, innovation and compassionate care to detect and treat your specific cancer, creating precise, personalized treatment plans that incorporate groundbreaking discoveries, collaborations with other world-renowned cancer researchers, and the best individualized treatment just for you.

What are the risk factors for Unknown Primary Head and Neck Cancer?

A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of developing a disease. Having risk factors however, does not necessarily mean you will get cancer, so it’s important to know your own personal risk factors and discuss any concerns with your doctor.

Risk factors for Unknown Primary Head and Neck Cancer includes:

  • Tobacco usage
  • Having a tumor in another part of your body (diagnosed or undiagnosed)
  • A history of being infected with Human Papillomavirus (HPV) 


Preventing or reducing your risk of Unknown Primary Head and Neck Cancer often involves changing your lifestyle behaviors.

This includes:

  • Eliminating tobacco use
  • Reducing alcohol consumption
  • Getting vaccinated for HPV
  • At the Institute, our team of experts will discuss with you what tests are best for your personal needs as well as any additional steps you can take to lower your risk of developing this
  • and other types of cancer.

Have questions?

We're here to help answer any questions you or your family may have.

Recent News

Language Preference / Preferencia de idioma

I want to see the site in English

Continue In English

Quiero ver el sitio en Español

Continuar en español