Head & Neck Cancers: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

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By Dr. Suven Kalra, Ear-Nose-Throat (ENT),

Cancer of the head and neck region is the most common cancer in Indian population. It may occur in the nose, throat, mouth, salivary glands, thyroid gland, ears, eyes or anywhere on the skin of head and neck. The origin, cause, symptoms and treatment varies widely depending upon the exact site and nature of the cancer.

Risk factors

If you are habituated to consuming tobacco and alcohol, then you are at the highest risk of suffering from head and neck cancer; however it can also be caused in people who suffer from infection caused by human Papilloma virus.

  1. Tobacco & Alcohol – Consumption of tobacco is the commonest cause for cancers in the mouth, throat and food pipe. Using alcohol along with tobacco increases the risk of cancer multi fold.
  2. Poor oral hygiene – Untreated gum diseases, ill fitting dentures and sharp teeth can all lead to development of oral cancer.
  3. Genetic predisposition – Certain types of cancers bear a hereditary risk and are common is certain families. If a close relative of yours has suffered from cancer then you should get periodic check up done and should not ignore early warning signs.
  4. Gender- Cancer of mouth, throat and windpipe are more commonly seen in men. On the other hand cancers of the thyroid gland are more common in women. However either sex may suffer from cancer of any site.
  5. Diet – Lack of essential nutrients and improper diet hampers the body’s ability to self heal and may lead to cancer.
  6. Age- The risk of cancer goes on increasing as you age. Warning signs Certain early warning signs should not be ignored and you must visit a doctor immediately if you suffer from any of these.

Even thought these are some of the commonest signs, the list is not comprehensive and you should not ignore if you find anything amiss. 

  1. Difficulty in swallowing- Inability to swallow solid food, feeling of food being stuck in the throat, return of food as vomit immediately after swallowing are all signs of obstruction in the food pipe that may be caused by cancer.
  2. Hoarse Voice- Hoarseness or change in the voice is one of the earliest signs of vocal cord cancer and is common in smokers.
  3. Non healing ulcers – In the mouth or that which are increasing in size, not healing for a long time or bleeding are warning signs of cancer
  4. Swelling – A mass in the neck, swelling or enlarged nodes are indicative of cancer spread.
  5. Bleeding – From the mouth, nose, in phlegm or sputum should alert you to the possibility of cancer. Blood in stools and black tar like stools are also warning signs.
  6. Loss of weight – Loss of weight and appetite in spite of taking adequate diet, feeling of tiredness and continuous fatigue.
  7. Cough – A cough that is not going away even after taking multiple courses of medication should alert you.

Treatment- 

  1. Surgery- Surgical removal of the affected organ along with surrounding structures if invaded by the cancer. Surgery is possible depending on the exact type of cancer, the site of involvement and the stage of cancer. After removal of the cancer, radiotherapy or chemotherapy might be needed to control the microscopic spread of cancer to surrounding areas or in case of certain aggressive cancers to prevent the possibility of distant spread and recurrence.
  2. Radiation & Chemo Therapy- Certain types of cancers are more sensitive to radiation and others can be treated better by chemotherapy. These may be used in conjunction with surgery or alone as a primary treatment. These may be used before surgery to reduce the size of the tumor or after surgery to control microscopic spread. Modern radio and chemotherapy is designed if such a way as to reduce detrimental effects on surrounding normal tissues while maintaining maximum impact on the cancer. This is only for information of patients and general public and should not be used as a guide to diagnosis or treatment. In case of any health problems you should visit your doctor and not try self treatment at home.



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